Wyden, Merkley Call Out Chemawa School

The boarding school Chemawa Indian School was founded to the north of Salem, Oregon, in 1885. Their stated purpose was to teach students from the many First Nations tribes living within the newborn state of Oregon how to live in the new society which was being created around them. The school is still there, between the Salem suburbs of Keizer Station and Hayesville, nestled between Interstate 5 and Highway 99E. 

Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the school was closed, only reopening in mid-October, with a diminished student body due to pandemic protocols. The returning students, some descendants of settled farmers who were driven from their homes and others descended from nomads who were driven from their lands, entered their school past an encampment of people who had more recently been driven from their homes by a modern displacement called “eviction.” 

The school’s reopening has also reopened concerns about the method of its operation.  

It’s the only remaining federally-funded school for Native American students, and Oregon’s Senators Ron Wyden (D) and Jeff Merkley (D) have written a letter to the Inspector General of the U.S. Department of the Interior asking that a list of concerns be investigated, including issues of academic achievement, student health and safety, hiring and staff treatment issues, and financial transparency. The Senators feel that Government Accountability Office reviews in 2013 and 2014, and a DoI investigation in 2015, didn’t deal with these issues, citing a 2017 OPB investigative report among other sources.  

In their letter, the senators said, “In response to questions from OPB, the Bureau of Indian Education acknowledged that there is oversight on all the expenditures of school budgets but not detailed financial audits.” 

The Senators quoted the 2015 Interior Department report as saying, “the Chemawa Indian School was not properly assessing the academic needs of its students…[and was] unable to effectively prioritize its resources to ensure the successful educational achievement of its student population.” They also noted that the Inspector General’s reviews of 2008 and 2014 rated its efforts to prevent violence by and against students and staff as only “adequate.” 

The letter asks whether Chemawa is included in the section of the Bureau of Indian Education’s 2018 “Strategic Direction” which calls for “technical assistance” to “high risk schools,” given consistent complaints about misuse of financial resources 

The Senators’ letter indicates that they feel frustrated in their attempts to get basic information from the school, even on matters such as “does Chemawa’s budget receive audits?” and “does the school have a functioning school board?”  

Senator Merkley told OPB that in 2019 he had to send the school a written request to get a map of the school’s campus. 

Representative Kurt Schrader (D-Canby), whose district includes Chemawa school, has visited the school, and has announced his intention to visit again in November. He says that he hopes his announced visit will make it clear to Director of the Bureau of Indian Education Tony Dearman, Superintendent of Chemawa Indian School Amanda Ward, and other responsible persons, “that we’re still watching and we’re so hopeful the progress is going to be made.” 


By John M. Burt 

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