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Legislation that would enable Congress to formally investigate the government’s role in Indian Boarding Schools—including vesting them with the power to subpoena church records—is once again in front of lawmakers.

On Feb. 5, Co-Chairs of the Congressional Native American Caucus—Representatives Sharice Davids (Ho-Chunk, D-KS) and Tom Cole (Chickasaw Nation, R-OK)—reintroduced the Truth and Healing Commission on Indian Boarding School Policies Act of 2024. This is the fourth year an iteration of this bill has been brought before lawmakers: A similar bill was first introduced in 2020 by then-Congresswoman Deb Haaland (Laguna Pueblo), now the Secretary of the Interior. It was reintroduced in 2022 and 2023 by Sen. Warren and supported last year by a bipartisan group of 27 US Senators.

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In 2022, the Senate Committee on Indian Affairs held a hearing on the legislation, but the bill never moved out of committee.

“My grandparents are survivors of Indian boarding schools, but many other children never returned to their families or their communities,” Davids said of the bill. In her home state of Kansas, there were 14 federal Indian boarding schools that worked to assimilate Native children. “Establishing a Truth and Healing Commission would bring survivors, experts, federal partners, and Tribal leaders to the table to fully investigate what happened to our relatives and work towards a brighter path for the next seven generations.”

If passed, the Truth and Healing Commission on Indian Boarding School Policies Act of 2024 would establish a 10-member commission of former Indian boarding school students and truth and healing experts to investigate, document, and acknowledge the true histories of Indian boarding schools. The commission would develop recommendations for the government to help in healing historical and intergenerational trauma and provide a forum for victims to speak about personal experiences tied to these human rights violations. 

Importantly, the commission would also be empowered to subpoena records from private entities, including churches, that operated schools or institutions intended to assimilate Native youth, as well as government records needed to locate and identify children who attended boarding schools, their tribal affiliations, and unmarked graves. The subpoena power would give the commission a powerful tool that is not available as part of the ongoing investigation of boarding schools by the Department of Interior.  

“For too long, the stories of Native children stripped of their heritage, families, and lives were hidden. We must bring the light of truth to this dark chapter in our nation’s history and establishing this commission is imperative to that,” said Rep. Cole in a statement. In Cole’s home state of Oklahoma, there were 76 federal Indian boarding schools. “It will provide needed answers and build a pathway to healing for survivors and tribal families. Turning acknowledgment into action will help ensure the harms of the past are never repeated.”

Upon introduction, the bill was referred to three committees: the Committee on Education and the Workforce, the Committees on Natural Resources, and Energy and Commerce.

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