Wise politics? Native education gets renewed focus from Biden admin in midterm election year
Topic is seen by administration insiders as apolitical, but Trump-backed GOPers are set on politicizing.
WASHINGTON — On Indigenous issues, expect an even bigger emphasis on improving Indian education in this midterm election year, both administration officials and tribal advocates tell Indigenous Wire.
Whether that will be a wise political decision remains to be seen.
That point was hammered home yesterday in a meeting of the White House Council on Native American Affairs, multiple attendees say.
Three Cabinet secretaries and their top-level staffers attended the virtual meeting, as did Assistant Secretary for Indian Affairs Bryan Newland, a Bay Mills Indian Community citizen. At least 10 tribal leaders spoke at the meeting, with many highlighting tribal educational and cultural needs.
The event was characterized by some as strong, as most tribal citizens tend to care about improving contemporary funding and initiatives for Indian education, as well as about addressing the historical atrocities of boarding schools and their lingering social impacts on tribes and individual Indigenous citizens.
At the same time, it was a fairly low energy gathering, as tribal participants widely suspect that the Biden administration is prevented from doing anything too progressive on tribal issues for fear of limiting voter turnout of independent and swing voters who might not like some Native topics — especially Interior Secretary Deb Haaland’s likely support for reparations for boarding schools survivors, their families and maybe even their tribes.
The main topics Haaland drew public attention to after the meeting were a 2022 “Native Language Summit” to be held on Oct. 4 in Oklahoma City, as well as her efforts to implement Executive Order 14049, which created the White House Initiative on Advancing Educational Equity, Excellence, and Economic Opportunity for Native Americans and Strengthening Tribal Colleges and Universities. She also recently launched the Indian Youth Service Corps to provide education, employment and training opportunities through conservation projects on public and Native lands.
The day before the council met, Haaland made clear that boarding schools are top of mind, announcing that she and Newland will visit Oklahoma on what they’re billing as their first stop on “The Road to Healing” on July 9. It’s set to be “a year-long tour across the country to provide Native survivors of the federal Indian boarding school system and their descendants an opportunity to share their experiences,” according to the Interior Department.
Native education, including forward-looking funding and facility support for Bureau of Indian Education (BIE) schools — as well as accounting for past issues involved with boarding schools — are believed by some administration officials as areas where the Biden administration can make strides this year without controversy.
Some in Congress agree. Twenty-five lawmakers, including U.S. Rep. Melanie Stansbury (D-NM), are currently leading a bipartisan push to increase BIE school construction funding in the FY2023 federal budget.
“I have one message this morning, which is please fund BIE schools,” Stansbury said during a House oversight hearing on June 28. “We signed hundreds of treaties as a nation with our tribal nations. We made commitments over the last 150 years that we would ensure that our Native children had not only an adequate education, but a brilliant education that would help to prepare them for their futures.”
But beyond the BIE, it remains unclear whether boarding schools are a safe topic for the Biden administration to champion this year in particular.
House Republican leaders have already raised concerns about the cost of a reconciliation bill, the Truth and Healing Commission on Indian Boarding School Policies Act, which is meant to address via an independent commission the historical and current problems associated with federally-mandated boarding school assimilation. They also do not want the commission to have subpoena authority, nor do they want commission members to be paid.
Politicians endorsed by former President Trump are at the same time making a major issue of the possibility of boarding school-related reparations, as recent tough words from U.S. Rep. Lauren Boebert (R-CO), who won her primary on Tuesday, exemplify.
Still, Dems don’t see BIE funding or boarding school reconciliation issues as a topics that can be easily and widely politicized, especially to the point that they will cost them swing votes in swing states.
Along those lines, U.S. Senate Committee on Indian Affairs Chairman Brian Schatz (D-HI) may have been late to the party to hold a hearing on boarding schools, but he dived in head first last week with the first senatorial hearing on both the Interior Department’s recent boarding school report and the overwhelmingly Democratic-supported Truth and Healing Commission on Indian Boarding School Policies Act.
Schatz had been slow compared to the U.S. House Natural Resources Committee in granting a hearing for a bill he strongly supports, and Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-NY) has been equally slow to express his support.
Schatz also seems to believe that this could be a tough sell. He said during his hearing that “hopefully” it can pass out of the full Senate and that it can be funded. This was not exactly a ringing endorsement, tribal attendees of the hearing noted.
While the Biden administration may believe this is an apolitical area to be focusing upon, there are still some political considerations being made at least in in the upper chamber, advocates say, especially if boarding school reconciliation becomes overwhelmingly about achieving taxpayer-funded reparations during economically challenging times.
Canada’s exploration of residential boarding institutions led to large financial payouts from that nation’s government in the 2010s for many Indigenous citizens of our neighbor to the north, and most keyed-in U.S. lawmakers and administration officials know that is likely where the boarding school issue here will ultimately lead.
On the GOP side, vice chairman of the committee Lisa Murkowski (R-AK) made clear that she believes the topic can and should be bipartisan.
“Alaska’s neighbor to the east, Canada, is dealing with its own history and legacy of Indian Boarding Schools,” Murkowski noted during the hearing. “The idea of a Truth and Healing Commission to help address and heal from such atrocities has been implemented in Canada and serves as an example we can learn from, which is why I am co-leading S. 2907 to establish a formal truth and healing commission in the United States.”
When Murkowski asked Haaland whether she supports subpoena power for a potential boarding school commission, the secretary — a Laguna Pueblo citizen —said she supports the bill as written by her friend U.S. Rep. Sharice Davids (D-KS), a Ho-Chunk Nation citizen.
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