'Be prepared to cry': Interior hiring leader for Federal Indian Boarding School Initiative
Current DOI staffers feel overwhelmed by sheer scale and trauma involved with addressing a major federal sin.
WASHINGTON — The U.S. Interior Department is in the process of hiring a much-needed, high-level individual to help oversee the Federal Indian Boarding School Initiative.
The program, currently led by Interior Secretary Deb Haaland and Assistant Secretary for Indian Affairs Bryan Newland, is meant to address and ultimately account for historical atrocities related to the federal government’s role in creating and maintaining boarding schools.
Such institutions harmed Indigenous communities and thousands of Native children in numerous sickening, life-threatening ways, and many of their victims and descendants of victims are alive today.
Given appropriate resources, the initiative could lead to nationwide federal-tribal reconciliation and even reparations at levels never seen in the U.S. to date for Indigenous populations. Churches that sanctioned abuse could separately be held accountable, as has been happening in Canada to some extent lately.
The American effort, while seen by many Natives as justified and long overdue, has become unwieldy and time-consuming, according to a number of federal staffers. At the same time, it faces some amount of political opposition as the U.S. Congress works on similar boarding school-related legislative plans and as some congressional members fret whether this will all lead to costly reparations.
“Too much work. Too much pain,” one agency official who did not have permission to publicly speak on the record told Indigenous Wire.
The Interior Department has limited resources — specifically time and money — to focus on a wide range of important Indian affairs, yet the topic of federal boarding schools and how the U.S. government historically created and funded them and then systematically assimilated and harmed Indian children deserves much more scrutiny, according to some officials within the Biden administration.
Native federal workers, in particular, believe this to be critical work, it should be noted. (Haaland herself is a citizen of the Pueblo of Laguna, and Newland is a citizen of the Bay Mills Indian Community.)
The White House, meanwhile, reportedly isn’t 100 percent on board with the project, some in the administration have said. They note that Haaland herself couldn’t affirmatively say at a press conference in May whether she and President Joe Biden had ever to that point discussed this topic — yet it remains one of her top legacy items.
To date, $7 million has been appropriated by the U.S. Congress to fund Interior’s boarding school investigations, but current staff has been stretched thin, despite those monies.
Interior’s Bureau of Trust Funds Administration (BTFA) has been tasked with doing much of the research related to the initiative, which has been a tough haul, by some accounts, for its staff. The BTFA itself used to be the Office of the Special Trustee for American Indians, which was created as a result of the Cobell trust mismanagement litigation in 1994 “to improve the accountability and management of Indian assets through oversight, reform, and coordination of Federal policy.”
As Indigenous Wire reported in May, it has been surprising to some observers that the BTFA has been placed in charge of collecting boarding school records, since it is traditionally thought of as a place that deals exclusively with federal Indian trust fund management.
Interior staffers tasked with focusing on boarding schools and the many traumas associated with them have been pushing for months to hire or reallocate more dedicated staff to take on the weighty task. Outside advocacy groups, like the National Native American Boarding School Healing Coalition (NABS), have been likewise calling for more assistance.
To date, Newland has written a 102-page report highlighting more than 400 such schools — many with countless stories of physical and sexual abuse — with another report from him promised by next summer.
Haaland and Newland have also already visited several tribes and Native peoples to gather in-person evidence of boarding school-based atrocities, including physical, sexual and mental abuse — and even allegations of murder and cover-up.
At times there has been so much intensely emotional information generated at such meetings from forced attendees of boarding schools and their descendants that Interior staffers have felt exhausted — mentally and physically — according to many people familiar with Haaland and Newland’s travels.
Interior leaders have to date been relying on a small staff, their families, and limited federal resources — as well as the help of outside groups, like NABS, which has provided volunteers to help facilitate federal-tribal boarding school meetings to get their work done.
Federal leadership — both within Interior and at the White House — has decided that creating a primary coordinator position for the Federal Boarding School Initiative at a high federal grade level with a high pay range — GS-15 — could alleviate some of the pressure felt by current staff and leaders.
Advertised through Oct. 9, the new position carries the following workload and expectations, according to the federal hiring announcement:
Serves as the expert staff authority, principal coordinator, and primary contact for the Boarding School Initiative (BSI) Management. While not a supervisor, provides general oversight of personnel assigned to support the project and coordinates functional leads on all project-related tasks and deliverables to meet timelines and ensure accuracy.
Develops effective management systems that include internal controls to ensure projects and functional areas are maintaining the project plans and risks related to Time, Resources, Technology and Budget are accurately accounted for and properly mitigated.
Manages and operates the BSI to ensure relevant Federal laws, regulations and statutes, and guidance as well as DOI policies and procedures are adhered to as required.
Coordinates and leads development among the AS-IA divisional offices and IA bureaus as well as DOI partners and external Federal agencies, Tribes, and other stakeholders, as needed, to establish and execute management methodologies that ensure consistency in approach and sustainability.
Represents the BSI through liaison activities with other DOI offices and bureaus as well as external partners including the National Native American Boarding School Healing Coalition (NABS), as needed.
Interior officials are keen on getting the position quickly filled, and they have noted that the person hired to the position can work remotely.
They also know that the person will have to be able to compartmentalize and cope with intensely challenging stories of abuse and horror, all brought on by the federal government.
“It’s an all-around daunting experience,” reflected one Interior employee. “Be prepared to cry.”
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