Statesman Journal [Salem OR]
May 22, 2022
By Dianne Lugo
Oregon Senators Ron Wyden and Jeff Merkley have joined other lawmakers in calling for the Senate Committee on Indian Affairs to hold hearings on a bill that would establish a truth and reconciliation commission on Indian boarding school policies.
In a letter signed by 17 other Senators, lawmakers asked Chairman of the Senate Committee on Indian Affairs Brian Schatz (D-Hawaii) and Vice-Chairman Murkowski (R -Alaska) to schedule a hearing to consider Senate Bill 2907 at its earliest convenience.
The bill, S. 2907, is known as the Truth and Healing Commission on Indian Boarding School Policies in the United States Act and was introduced by Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Massachusetts) last September on the same day Murkowski introduced a formal resolution to designate the day, Sept. 30, as a National Day of Remembrance for Indian Boarding Schools.
The bill would establish a formal commission to investigate, document, and acknowledge past injustices of the federal government’s Indian Boarding School Policies.
The Senate bill would also require the commission to develop recommendations for Congress “to aid in the healing of the historical and intergenerational trauma passed down in Native families and communities and provide a forum for victims to speak about personal experiences tied to these human rights violations,” according to the letter sent by lawmakers on Friday.
A House counterpart to the bill, H.R.5444, was also introduced on Sept. 30 and the House Subcommittee for Indigenous Peoples of the United States hosted an emotional hearing on May 12.
It took place just a day after the Department of Interior released its first report on Indian boarding schools and their lasting impacts.
At the hearing, bearing school survivors spoke of the abuse they experienced and witnessed at schools designed to target and destroy the languages, cultures, and history of Native American tribes.
Matthew Warbonnet, now 76 years old, was one of the survivors who testified at the House hearing. He is one of 10 siblings who all attended Indian boarding schools. He was 6 when he first attended the St. Francis Indian School in South Dakota. The topic is a difficult topic to talk about, he said, calling the boarding school experience “painful and traumatic.”
Another survivor, Dr. Ramona Klein from North Dakota, spoke during the hearing of witnessing her mother cry as six of her eight children were placed on a bus and taken to the same boarding school. Klein was 7 years old. She shared memories of her hair being cut short and of facing abuse at the boarding school. The experience at the school impacted her entire life, she said.
“I ask you to remember your own child, or perhaps a grandchild going to school for the first time. Those special moments when a child goes to school with the confidence that his mother or a relative will come back to pick up the child at school,” Klein said. “Now imagine that experience if you would not see that little child for the rest of the year or perhaps even years for no other reason except that child is an Indian child.”
Families of former Chemawa Indian School students shared their own experience of the impact of the Indian Boarding School program with the Statesman Journal last year. Chemawa was one of the 408 federal schools across 37 states that operated between 1819 to 1969 identified in the Department of Interior’s report. The school remains the oldest continuously operated and federally run Indian boarding school in the United States.
It is one of four off-reservation boarding schools the federal government currently runs. More than 300 students attend Chemawa today but at least 30,000 children attended the school in Chemawa’s first 96 years alone.