GOP leader questions cost, mission of U.S. boarding school commission
Subpoena authority of potential 'truth and reconciliation commission' also questioned.
WASHINGTON — The day after the U.S. Department of the Interior released a difficult report highlighting historical and lengthy atrocities related to the U.S. government’s role in sustaining Native American boarding schools, GOP leadership in the U.S. House questioned legislation that would create a commission to hear from survivors. No reparations are on the table, as of yet.
“One of the things I hope we’re going to have a discussion about today is whether or not this commission should have subpoena authority,” said U.S. Rep. Jay Obernolte (R-CA), ranking member of the Subcommittee for Indigenous Peoples of the United States, during a hearing on May 12. “…It’s not the norm for a commission like this to have subpoena authority; in fact, there are standing committees here in the House of Representatives that don’t even have subpoena authority…. Assuming that this is going to be an adversarial relationship with the people who testify before the commission might be doing a disservice to the goals of the commission. Subpoena authority, though it might serve the goal of truth, might be adversarial to the goal of healing.”
“I can tell you from experience that when you issue a subpoena to somebody…that the person is going to assume that the process is adversarial. They’re going to show up with lawyers. They’re going to be very defensive. I don’t think that’s the kind of atmosphere we’re trying to lay here.”
“I also think we need to be very clear about the taxpayer resources that are being expended here…,” Obernolte added. “I think we need to have a discussion about whether or not service on the commission should be compensated. As the bill is written right now, it is compensated at level 4 of the executive schedule, which is almost $200,000 a year. I would hope that it would be more of a community service role.”
“[W]e need to talk about the total cost of the bill,” Obernolte said. “I’m not opposed to investing substantial taxpayer resources in this commission, but I think we need to be explicit about what those resources are, and right now, at the end of the bill, it merely says that the necessary resources…’such sums that may be necessary will remain available until expended,’ so I think we need to quantify what those sums are and write it in the bill, so that everyone is clear on that, so that it would withstand challenge in the future.”
Obernolte framed his points as “respectful suggestions.”
U.S. Rep. Sharice Davids (D-KS), a citizen of the Ho-Chunk Nation, had come in front of the subcommittee just before Obernolte spoke. Through tears, she explained the legislation she co-sponsored, H.R. 5444, the “Truth and Healing Commission on Indian Boarding School Policies Act,” which was the subject of the hearing. Other sponsors are U.S. Rep. Tom Cole (R-OK), a citizen of the Chickasaw Nation, and U.S. Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) of the same legislation in the upper chamber.
If passed and signed into law, the bill would create a commission on boarding schools, examine the locations where Native children were sent, document ongoing ramifications and offer provisions to locate related church and government records. Its aim is to create accountability, but it doesn’t define reparations as such.
Rebuttals: Deb Parker, CEO of the National Native American Boarding School Healing Coalition (NABS), as well as U.S. Reps. Raúl Grijalva, the chair of the House Natural Resources Committee, expressed support at the hearing for subpoena power for the commission.
“I’m not so sure I would call [subpoena authority] adversarial,” Parker said. “I would just call it the need for records and for churches and other organizations to bring their records forward…. We’ve heard a lot of reasons why we cannot receive the records, but with the subpoena power, that will allow us to make sure the records do come forward in a timely fashion.”
“I think the subpoena power is necessary when reacting to a public policy,” Grijalva said. “This truth seeking is not about assessing punishment. It is about recognizing this chapter in our history as something we cannot hide from.”
In response to a question from Obernolte, Parker stumbled a bit in saying how the commission would not duplicate efforts on boarding schools of those ongoing at Interior — an obvious question — but she recovered by noting that such a commission, under Congress, would be able to substantively look a non-federal church-based abuses. It would additionally be able to facilitate skeptical investigation of the U.S. Executive Branch’s historical and current role in the system, including contemporary efforts to quantify boarding school abuse by the employees of Interior’s Bureau of Trust Funds Administration. That office has a history steeped in doing poor record collection regarding Native trust funds, so that it is being charged by current Interior leaders with rapidly collecting boarding school data is something that subpoena authority could be helpful in dealing with, especially if there are future presidential administrations opposed to looking in-depth at this topic. In short: Feds haven’t generally been friends of Indian Country, so they shouldn’t be given a pass.
Obernolte responded that he was “disappointed” that there was not an Interior representative to testify at the hearing, since Interior could best explain what it is doing here.
U.S. Rep. Betty McCollum (D-MN) later said not to fear the price of the legislation and that it was written in such a way to allow leeway for “launching something that’s new” within the appropriations bill to fund Interior. She said nothing about potential appropriations of reparations. “It doesn’t mean it’s an open checkbook,” she did say.
No one addressed Obernolte’s concerns about the amount of compensation for employees of the commission.
Of note: Obernolte’s words were the first major public notice from Congress that this issue could become politicized. Indian legislation that passes Congress overwhelmingly tends to be bipartisan.
Members of the Democratic National Committee Native Caucus in April called on U.S. lawmakers in the House and Senate to immediately schedule hearings on this legislation. The House did so. Nothing in the Senate thus far.
“There has really been very, very little – if any – pushback or resistance to this, and that’s both in Democratic and Republican congressional offices,” Samuel Torres, deputy CEO of NABS, said previously during the DNC meeting. “This is an issue that we absolutely believe holds the possibility of being a true bipartisan issue because this is one of those issues that has affected everybody in Indian Country.”
Intrigue: Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-NY) was expected to endorse the legislation, virtually, at the same DNC meeting, but he experienced technical difficulties, and his office hasn’t responded to requests for comment on his position.
Former Native American Political Director of the DNC, Theresa Sheldon, sat behind boarding school survivors who testified at the hearing. She stepped down from that role in April and then became NABS’ new director of policy and advocacy. She is a political operative, and some question whether her involvement could hurt the legislation’s bipartisan chances.
Beyond politics: Survivors — who are advancing in age — know people who are alive now who allegedly physically and sexually abused, or who fostered the abuse of children. They firmly believe that a systemic cover-up has taken place, especially within the Catholic Church, due largely to recollections from some forced attendees. At the same time, the federal government may have turned a blind eye, intending to assimilate through education at any cost — even the lives of children — in the 19th and 20th centuries.
Jarring: Some Native people watching the hearing in person and online found it disconcerting to observe a lengthy recess in the middle of fraught testimony from boarding school survivors as House members were forced to go vote on other legislation. Note to future congressional oversight committees from boarding school survivors and their families and tribes: When people are to testify about sexual abuse, mental anguish, murder, and a collective knowledge that the U.S. government and churches encouraged the behavior — do not schedule such an emotionally intense hearing when other matters are more pressing. It shows a lack of respect.
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