Subpoena authority could jeopardize boarding school truth and healing commission

Chilocco Indian School in north-central Oklahoma was a federal off-reservation boarding school established to house, civilize, Christianize and educate Native American youth. Thousands of Cheyenne, Arapaho, Wichita, Comanche and Pawnee children and young adults were sent there from 1884 until 1980. (Photo courtesy of Oklahoma History Center)

Bipartisan efforts to create a federal commission to explore and repair the legacy of the nation’s notorious Indian boarding schools have hit a stumbling block over subpoena authority.

The obstacle came last month as supporters worked to pass the Truth and Healing Commission on Indian Boarding School Policies Act. The top Republican on the subcommittee hearing House Resolution 5444 said it could lose bipartisan support if the commission is granted subpoena power to obtain witness testimony and produce evidence, which he called “adversarial to the goal of healing.”

The commission is intended to work parallel to the Department of Interior’s Federal Indian Boarding School Initiative, which released its first report on May 11.

Rep. Tom Cole, R-Okla., is the top co-sponsor of H.R. 5444, which was reintroduced by Rep. Sharice Davids, D-Kan., on the National Day of Remembrance, Sept. 30. The bill has 57 co-sponsors from both sides of the aisle, including fellow Oklahoman and Republican, Rep. Markwayne Mullin.

“Establishing the Truth and Healing Commission on Indian Boarding School Policy will provide an important step toward resolving and healing from one of our nation’s darkest periods,” Cole said in September.

Davids said the commission would “build off Secretary Haaland’s Federal Boarding School Initiative by collecting documents and testimony outside the federal boarding school system.”

Cole is a member of the Chickasaw Nation; Davids is a member of the Ho-Chunk Nation.

The partisan warnings arose at a May 13 hearing of the House subcommittee for Indigenous peoples of the United States to provide witness testimony about the federally funded efforts to assimilate Native American people and culture.

Shawnee Chief Ben Barnes, a descendant of boarding school survivors, says the importance of a Truth and Healing Commission can’t be calculated. (Photo courtesy of Shawnee Tribe)

The hearing centered on testimony from Native voices who survived the boarding schools or are descendants of those who attended the schools.

Ben Barnes, chief of the Shawnee Tribe and a descendant of boarding school survivors, told the subcommittee that the importance of the would-be commission is incalculable.

“As time continues to pass, we will lose the testimonies of survivors and more documents will become misplaced,” he testified. “That is the importance of H.R. 5444. Creating a mandated commission empowered to locate every available record and ensure this history is preserved and made available for examination.”

Although bipartisan support exists for an investigation into the individual impact of the policies and assimilation of Native Americans, a lack of agreement exists amongst supporters of the bill as to the methods and powers available to investigators.

Rep. Jay Obernolte, R-Calif., the subcommittee’s acting ranking Republican member, called the subpoena authority a reason for hesitancy.

“So subpoena authority, while it might serve the goal of truth, might be adversarial to the goal of healing,” Obernolte said before witness testimony. “And I think that we should have that discussion because I am not sure that serves the purpose of the commission.”

Of the 160 congressional commissions established since 1989, only 12 possess subpoena authority.

Deborah Parker, CEO of the National Native American Boarding School Healing Coalition and a citizen of the Tulalip Tribes, said subpoena power is “absolutely necessary.”

“It’s why we worked with this bill to make sure that this information comes to the boarding school survivors and their families, and tribal nations and organizations who work for the healing and the truth of the Indian boarding school experience,” she said.

Obernolte, however, doubled down on his contention that the use of subpoenas would make the process adversarial.

Reps. Cole and Davids have stressed that the purpose of the bill is not to elicit conflict. Instead, they say, it’s to provide answers for the individuals, families and communities affected by federally funded Native boarding schools.

“There are people that don’t like the stories, and they’re not going to want to willingly share,” Barnes said in an interview after his testimony. “And that subpoena power helps grease the wheels and helps get that information where it needs to be, so those tribal communities can discover the truth of what happened to our kids.”

Even though subpoena authority has become a partisan issue, Barnes remains hopeful that the bill will be passed during the current congressional session.

“I don’t want to wait one more year, one more week, not one more day,” he said. “I think the time to insist upon the answers is now. So, I have to believe this is the time, this is the one, this is the year.”

Gaylord News is a reporting project of the University of Oklahoma Gaylord College of Journalism and Mass Communication.