Tribal Government & News

Kennedy to convene Tribal meeting to discuss possible Chemawa solutions

05.14.2018 Dean Rhodes Tribal Council, Education, Federal Government

Grand Ronde Tribal Chairwoman Cheryle A. Kennedy and Siletz Tribal Chairwoman Dee Pigsley will convene a meeting of Oregon Tribal representatives to compile a list of concerns to be addressed along with possible solutions regarding how Chemawa Indian School in Salem is operated.

The scheduled meeting is a result of a Thursday, May 3, session held in Salem that attracted four members of the Oregon congressional delegation – Sens. Jeff Merkley and Ron Wyden and Reps. Suzanne Bonamici and Kurt Schrader.

Leaders from seven Oregon Tribes also attended to express concerns and press school administrators for answers following an Oregon Public Broadcasting series that aired last fall that documented long-standing concerns over student safety, academics, school management and finances.

The group ended up with immediate and long-range plans to reform Chemawa, which is the country’s oldest federally run boarding school for Native American youth. Goals included greater transparency, more Tribal involvement and a potential overhaul of the how the school is governed.

Kennedy, whose father was a vocational teacher and head of maintenance at the school, said that money is high on the list of concerns, along with the lack of Native Americans on the teaching staff.

During the Tuesday, May 8, Legislative Action Committee meeting, Kennedy said Chemawa does not receive enough funding to be a 24/7 residential boarding school.

“None of the programs have sufficient funds … to do it in a quality way,” Kennedy said.

The list of Tribal concerns will be sent to lawmakers and the Bureau of Indian Education, which operates the school, within a month.

“I believe that most of the Tribes there expressed that the method for selecting faculty seemed to be not very open, because Tribes had talked about they had Tribal members who were teachers who weren’t hired,” Kennedy said.

The meeting included Bureau of Indian Education Director Tony Dearman.

Lawmakers said they want more rigorous financial audits of Chemawa and that they might introduce legislation to increase transparency at the school.

Chemawa is one of four federal boarding schools for Native youth still operating in the United States and one of 183 schools overseen by the Bureau of Indian Education. The largest population of students at Chemawa hail from Arizona.

Reforming Chemawa, however, might be difficult. Under the Trump administration, the Bureau of Indian Affairs has experienced significant turmoil, including the resignation of Director Bryan Rice in April after only six months on the job.

And while Oregon Tribes are taking a renewed interest in the school’s management, the vast majority of students – 92 percent -- come from other states, according to the school’s 2014-15 enrollment data.

In addition, reform efforts involving dozens of Tribes might be more than Oregon’s nine Tribes can manage.

“I believe that we’ll look back to the Bureau of Indian Affairs and say that they have a responsibility here themselves,” Kennedy said.

“I thought it was an important conversation,” Merkley said during his Friday, May 4, meeting with the Grand Ronde Tribal Council. “I just thought about what a complex governing system it is because the (Chemawa School) board doesn’t have real power and the board is spread out over a long space, and the contracts that need to go through a big bureaucracy, and whether it might be time to try a significantly different experiment in how to run the school. … It needs to have the ability to respond more quickly to circumstances.”

“I would say the meeting was somewhat tense to begin with,” Kennedy said. “But, I believe, by the end of the meeting everyone understood that we were all there for the same reason, and that is to supply a good, quality education to Native American students who come there from around the country. … I want things to be better.”

Also attending the Chemawa meeting was Tribal Council Chief of Staff Stacia Hernandez.

To hear the OPB series about problems at Chemawa Indian School, visit


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