Subcommittee Told Reforms Needed at Bureau of Indian Affairs

WASHINGTON (CN) –  Members of a House subcommittee were visibly dismayed on Wednesday as they listened to testimony on the woeful state of schools on tribal lands and the disconnect with the federal government many said has exacerbated the problems.

During the hours-long session, the members of the House Subcommittee on the Interior, Energy and Environment was told of mold-infested classrooms in which electric wiring hangs over children’s desks.

Of snow-drifts pouring into gaping holes in schoolhouse ceilings, and of children routinely exposed to asbestos and of carbon monoxide that silently leaked into one school buildings for months before it was discovered and addressed.

The stories didn’t come from parents or advocacy groups, but in the form of reports from the Government Accountability Office, the Department of the Interior’s Office of the Inspector General and from a councilman representing the Colorado-based Southern Ute tribe.

And at the heart of the problems, the subcommittee was told, is a woeful lack of communication between tribes and the Bureau of Indian Affairs and the Bureau of Indian Education.

The bureaus oversee more than 55 million acres held in trust by the U.S. for Native Americans and Alaskan Natives.

Approximately 1.9 million native Americans representing 567 tribes live on these lands.  There are 183 schools on these lands servicing 42,000 students, officials said.

Mary Kendall, deputy inspector general at the Interior department, said many of the bureaus’ problems stem from an inability to distribute funds to tribes and use resources effectively.

“The Office of the Inspector General has no programmatic authority to make that happen. Additional oversight of BIA and BIE by [Congress] would go a long way,” Kendall said. “Serious action by new leadership at the Office of Indian Affairs would help.”

Frank Rusco, of the Government Accountability Office, also criticized the oversight of the Bureau of Indian Affairs.

Rusco said that the bureau hasn’t used best practices in carrying out its mission, and that as a result having “the right people with the right skills” addressing tribal issues are extremely rare.

The accountability office has pushed BIA to conduct inspections of schools on tribal lands for years, but it wasn’t until last year that any comprehensive inspections took place, said GAO Director Melissa Emrey-Arras.

“We don’t know if inspections were complete or accurate because in the past someone did a drive by inspection where they never left their car. They never went into a single building. In one case, a school had 34 [separate] buildings and the inspector never went inside, so no deficiencies were noted inside of the building, ”  Emrey-Arras said.

Often, the schools were merely listed as “good condition,” she added.

“It hasn’t become significantly better. I’ve been there for 17 years and we could reissue reports from 10 to 12 years ago and find much of same kind of conditions that we find today. Perhaps here and there things have gotten better and when it has, that’s usually based on recommendations by [the accountability office],” Kendall said.

In the past, the Bureau of Indian Education has attributed challenges plaguing tribal schools to difficulty in attracting effective teachers, ongoing budgetary restructuring and limited broadband access.

Rep. Stacy Plaskett, a Democrat of the U.S. Virgin Islands, while visibly alarmed by the testimony, pressed Kendall for a solution.

“What measures have been taken to address these issues and if none, what does the impetus need to be? I can’t believe the Department of the Interior wants children in these positions,” Plaskett said.

Kendall reiterated her call for a top-down overhaul of the Bureau of Indian Affairs or, at the very least, a re-evaluation of its leadership.

While the state of tribal schools drove much of the testimony before the subcommittee, Rusco said the problems with how the federal government administers tribal lands go further.

He said the Bureau of Indian Affairs has failed to invest in technology to do such fundamental things as maintaining accurate land ownership records.

“This is essential to insuring that tribal members get their share when payment for land begins,” Rusco said.

Rep. Blake Farenthold, a Texas Republican and the subcommittee’s chairman, asked the panel brusquely if problems could be alleviated by “devolving these issues down to the state” instead of relying on the federal government to solve problems.

Tyson Thompson, the councilman of the Southern Ute Tribe, responded by saying his tribe is only one in the nation that has a AAA credit rating and the reason was because it retained exclusive rights to the fossil fuel resources on its land.

This, he said, has allowed it address its own problems directly, and that other tribes are not so fortunate.

Thompson said the Southern Ute are worth billions of dollars and have tribal businesses in more than a dozen states engaging in everything from oil drilling in the Gulf of Mexico to selling high-end real estate in California.

Earnings from these endeavors  “are redirected to assist other tribes. We can handle these situations. We can make business more attractive on our reservation. But giving up or taking regulations down to the state would not be in the tribe’s best interest,” Thompson said.

“Self determination and sovereignty are more important,” he added.