Oregon senators want closer scrutiny of Chemawa Indian School

Freddie Lane, a citizen of the Lummi Nation and Chemawa Indian School graduate, bows his head in prayer during a ceremony paying respects to children buried at Chemawa Cemetery on Friday, May 14, 2021 (Rachel Alexander/Salem Reporter)

It’s been six years since the Chemawa Indian School in Salem was last reviewed by the federal Department of the Interior, which found then that “the school did not have an adequate plan in place to ensure students’ educational achievement.” 

Now U.S. Sens. Jeff Merkley and Ron Wyden have asked the department to look into what progress has been made in the six years since, and to demand greater transparency of the school’s finances. 

Chemawa opened in 1880 as a residential boarding school, founded to forcefully assimilate the state’s Native children to the culture of white colonists. It is one of four such schools left in the U.S. and is the oldest continuously operated one, though its purpose has changed. 

The school is geared towards honoring unique tribal cultures according to the school’s website. There were 337 students during the 2019-20 school year, the most recent year for which the National Center for Education Statistics has the school’s enrollment data.  

The 2015 report recommended major changes at the school, including a comprehensive assessment to identify student needs to achieve academic success and to monitor progress. It recommended the school prioritize its resources to do so. 

Wyden and Merkley wrote in a letter Monday to Mark Greenblatt, inspector general at the Department of the Interior that “we have continued to receive complaints about alleged financial mismanagement at the school.” 

They wrote that such allegations were hard to evaluate given the schools “opaque financial practices” that includes a lack of detailed financial audits of the school by the Bureau of Indian Education. The Department of the Interior oversees the Bureau of Indian Education . 

The senators want to know whether school officials have made changes to improve students’ academic performance and whether the Bureau of Indian Education is overseeing the financial management and academic rigor of the school. 

The letter asks the inspector general to determine from the Bureau of Indian Education whether it has identified Chemawa as a high risk school that requires greater monitoring and whether Chemewa has a functioning school board. 

In 2013 and 2014 the Government Accountability Office determined that the Bureau of Indian Education lacked clear decision-making procedures and was not adequately monitoring and recording school expenditures. 

The senators wrote to Greenblatt that, “after several years, we remain deeply concerned that we cannot receive satisfactory answers to the most basic questions related to the school’s accounting practices.”

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