Hearing anything about a Senate hearing on boarding schools?
Senate committee slow to address a difficult topic involving first-hand abuse of survivors who have long been ready and willing to offer testimony. Why the foot-dragging?
WASHINGTON — Pressure is mounting from Democratic legislators, the Democratic National Committee and the Biden administration for the U.S Senate Committee on Indian Affairs to hold a hearing on the Truth and Healing Commission on Indian Boarding School Policies Act.
The bill, sponsored in the upper chamber by U.S. Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-MA), “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,” as we’ve previously reported.
The U.S. House held a hearing on the bill May 12 during which Republican leadership questioned its cost and mission.
Main issues raised by the GOP:
The cost to taxpayers for paying for commission members’ salaries.
The cost of the overall bill, which is left open-ended within the legisaltion.
Whether the commission should have subpoena power.
Whether it would duplicate ongoing efforts at the U.S. Interior Department.
Democratic concerns, too: Internal concern at the Senate Indian Affairs Committee over whether such a hearing will spotlight the issue of possible reparations to boarding school survivors and their families is said by people close to the committee to be one internal reason why a hearing has been slow to happen.
It’s a race-related issue at a time of non-stop, sensitive American race issues. Will it be politically popular? Some Natives survivors say they don’t care about politics; they want the truth revealed.
Democratic Senate officials say that U.S. Sen. Brian Schatz (D-HI), chair of the committee, indeed wants the legislation to get a fair shake, but there are political consequences for the larger Democratic coalition this year especially.
In addition, the American federal boarding school system affected Hawaiian Natives in different ways than it impacted Indigenous peoples in the lower 48 states and in Alaska, and Schatz usually considers Hawaiian Native needs above others when making his decisions. If his constituents don’t see the need for an immediate hearing, he isn’t going to feel pressured. The Interior Department listed 7 Hawaiian boarding schools in its recent report on the matter — a relatively small number compared to other states.
Schatz’ staff is currently framing this as an issue of timing, and they have told their peers that a hearing will likely happen soon, to be publicly announced in “short order.”
Senators who want the legislation to move forward are pushing for sooner than later. Nineteen senators, including Warren, sent a letter to Schatz last week asking for a hearing.
“We have not heard of any opposition in the Senate to this bill, and we are very grateful for the committee leadership’s strong support for this legislation,” an aide to Warren tells Indigenous Wire. “We are hopeful the committee will soon hold a hearing on this bill, even as it addresses the many other important matters over which it has jurisdiction.”
Notably, Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-NY) did not sign on to the letter, despite an understanding from some DNC Native Caucus members that he was going to be on board with this legislation. His office has had many opportinites to express support, but it has been silent to date.
Other pressing committee concerns: Another important matter before the Senate Indian Affairs Committee surrounds the nomination of Roselyn Tso, a Navajo Nation citizen and longtime Indian Health Service (IHS) official, to be the next permanent director of the IHS, which is part of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.
The Biden White House nominated Tso to the position in March after much concern from tribes and Native organizations that the critical position had gone unfilled for over a year during an ongoing pandemic that has killed many Native Americans.
Schatz’ committee has taken 11 more weeks to schedule a hearing on Tso’s nomination (happening today), which seems unusual to observers given the ongoing pandemic, as well as funding issues related to Covid and questions about IHS’s role in vaccinating and treating Native peoples.
In the past, top IHS political openings have often been slow to be filled by various administrations, but the pandemic and its ever-evolving variants places us in a unique position, Native advocates say. The IHS director job should have never been an afterthought, but there is especially no excuse for the foot-dragging now at any level of the federal government, they say.
Bottom line: Tribes and Native advocates want to see committees in the Senate and House moving faster on a variety of issues, scheduling multiple hearings per week if necessary.
On boarding schools in particular, survivors with direct knowledge of sexual, physical and mental abuse — as well as murder — are getting increasingly older. If they are to testify as part of a commission to give first-person accounts against the federal government and churches that systemically allowed the abuse, this needs to happen now. If they, their families and/or tribes are to receive benefits of reconciliation — including reparations — Congress must consider more than its own political calculations, survivors say.
Of note: A similar reconciliation commission in Canada took years to conduct and deliver its findings. That work, started in earnest in the 2010s is still ongoing, and elder Canadian survivors are dying without feeling heard by their respective government. Some see the delays as purposeful and part of the originally intended assimilation and colonization process.
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