The U.S. Senate Committee on Indian Affairs has sent the full Senate legislation that would create the Truth and Healing Commission on Indian Boarding School Policies.
U.S. Sen. Markwayne Mullin, a Cherokee Nation citizen elected to the Senate by Oklahomans in November, was among the 10 other senators who make up the membership of the committee.
Mullin, who was absent for the majority of the hearing’s proceedings and when the final voting occurred, said he agreed with the decision to pass the bill.
“I support the bill. There is some work that needs to be done to it,” Mullin said (R-Westville). “We’re working with the chairman and the ranking member — everybody is working together.
“Even Sen. Warren is working, trying to improve some stuff,” he said, referring to Democratic Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren, who is the author of the bill.
The committee’s action came only two weeks after the Office of Army Cemeteries announced that the remains of five children who died at the Carlisle Indian Industrial School, a now-closed Pennsylvania boarding school for Native Americans, are going to be exhumed and returned to their families who have waited for their return for more than a century.
The children died between 1880 and 1910 while attending Carlisle, a government boarding school. The U.S. Department of Interior found in 2022 that Native Americans who attended school there were subject to physical and sexual abuse.
Committee Vice Chairwoman Lisa Murkowski (R–Alaska) referred to Carlisle by telling the story of a child from St. Paul Island, Alaska, who died in 1906 and was repatriated in 2021.
“(Sophia Tetoff) was sent to a boarding school in Pennsylvania — Carlisle Indian Industrial School — about 4,500 miles from her home,” Murkowski told the room. “In these schools, children were forced to speak a language they didn’t know. Different clothing, different foods — all while living in fear that if they didn’t do exactly as they were told, there would be consequences.”
‘Fully reckon with this history’
The proposed commission follows the “Road to Healing” tour led by Interior Secretary Deb Haaland, which kicked off last July at the Riverside Indian School in Anadarko.
Seven amendments were filed to the legislation, with a majority of those amendments coming from U.S. Sen. Steve Daines (R–Montana). Oklahoma’s Mullin also proposed one amendment, which the committee adopted.
Mullin’s amendment provides that a final report be publicly available on the website of the applicable agency in lieu of the originally proposed public education meetings that would have been held in each region of the Bureau of Indian Affairs to present the Commission’s findings.
The Bureau of Indian Affairs has two regions that cover Oklahoma: the Southern Plains and Eastern Oklahoma regions.
Mullin said there is still some work to be done before the legislation is complete, especially surrounding subpoena power.
“There is a lot of concerns about the subpoena authority,” Mullin said. “It’s pretty broad. We’re trying to bring it in and make sure there’s some type of accountability for the commission back to the committee itself so we have oversight over some of this stuff.”
Murkowski said that one of Daines’ amendments clears up some of the issues with the bill.
His amendment that focuses on the subpoena authority changes the amount of Commission’s members needing to be in favor of a subpoena from three-fifths to unanimous consent.
Warren (D–Mass.) grew up in Norman and is a graduate of Northwest Classen High School in Oklahoma City.
“The federal government’s Indian boarding school policies caused unimaginable suffering and trauma that linger on in tribal communities today,” Warren said. “It is long overdue that the federal government fully reckon with this history and its legacy.”
Warren even gave a shout out to U.S. Rep. Sharice Davids (D-KS3) and Oklahoma U.S. Rep. Tom Cole (R–OK4), the co-chairs of the Native American Caucus in the House of Representatives, for their efforts of “carrying the baton in the House.”
The legislation surrounding the Truth and Healing Commission is now eligible to be heard on the Senate floor, and Warren’s Senate office said she is wanting to get the legislation through as soon as possible.