WASHINGTON — A House committee gave preliminary approval Wednesday to a bill that would create a commission to investigate Indian boarding schools, despite Republican concerns about the commission’s scope and power.
The Truth and Healing Commission would investigate federal and mission boarding schools, which operated from the late 1800s through the 1900s. The schools were widely seen as an attempt to erase Indigenous society and culture from Indigenous children, who were often abused and sometimes killed.
“For generations, Indigenous children have been removed from their families and traditional communities into boarding schools in an effort to force assimilation,” said Rep. Raul Grijalva, D-Tucson. “Sadly, many suffered physical, psychological and sexual abuse as punishment for simply practicing their culture or speaking their traditional language.”
He said the commission would begin the process of “healing the intergenerational trauma” of this “horrible story”.
The Commission of 10 members would be tasked with uncovering historical records, documenting unnamed burial sites, and investigating cases of abuse. It would then make recommendations on “steps the federal government can take to adequately hold itself accountable, repair and heal the historical and intergenerational trauma inflicted by residential school policies.” What Grijalva called a “fair account of our history”.
But Republicans on the House Natural Resources Committee raised concerns that the commission will have the power to subpoena witnesses, which one GOP lawmaker called “unchecked power.”
Democrats have said the subpoena power is essential, with Grijalva saying that “without its subpoena power, it (the commission) doesn’t have its authority. Rep. Teresa Leger Fernandez, DN.M., also noted that some organizations that operate boarding schools, such as churches, were “unwilling to release these records,” which is why the subpoena is necessary.
Republicans were also concerned about the amount of money that would be spent on the commission, paying compensation to members and travel. Grijalva said the work of the commission members will be “a full-time job”.
“We shouldn’t put limits on these, there are people here in Congress who are probably working less than these commissioners are going to be working,” he said.
The bill is sponsored by Rep. Sharice Davids, D-Kans., a member of the Ho-Chunk Nation and only the second Native American woman elected to Congress. There are 61 co-sponsors, including six Republicans. The five Democrats on the Arizona House delegation are co-sponsors.
“I support it because it’s the right thing to do,” Rep. Tom O’Halleran, D-Sedona, said in a recent interview. “We must learn from our past mistakes.”
Advocates believe the commission can help Indigenous communities heal from trauma experienced at federal residential schools by investigating what happened at those schools.
“We don’t just start with reconciliation or the solution, we have to start with understanding the problem,” said David Simmons, director of government affairs and advocacy at the National Indian Child Welfare Association.
The bill comes as the Home Office has released the first volume of investigation in tribal boarding schools. There were a total of 408 federal schools in 37 states, including 47 in Arizona, which only tracked Oklahoma and its 76 schools.
“You can’t just have a study with policy recommendations if you don’t have a process where you reconcile the truth and start the healing process,” Grijalva said.
Stephen Curley, director of digital archives for the National Native American Boarding School Healing Coalition, hopes that Indigenous communities will be strongly involved in the work of the board, to bring out voices that have been “stifled through various means”.
Simmons echoed Curley, saying that Indian country people with direct experience of the schools “need to be front and center in helping the commission do its job and do it right.”
The Interior report identified marked or unmarked burial sites at about 53 schools in the system, a number that is expected to increase. Grijalva and O’Halleran said one of the commission’s first actions should be to identify these graves.
“People need to know where their family is,” O’Halleran said. “We need to identify each one of them so this never happens again.”
Grijalva said after Wednesday’s committee vote that he expected the bill to go to the full House in July. He thinks it will come through the House and then “it will be very difficult for the Senate to ignore it.” The Senate has its own version of the bill, sponsored by Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass.
Proponents also want to see this legislation passed quickly, so the commission’s work can begin.
“We want this to happen immediately,” Simmons said. “We want to see Congress, members of both parties, come together, embrace this.”