Jewell: “Indian education is an embarrassment…to you and to us.” (AP)

Sally Jewell in for a Wild Ride with Indian Country

Rob Capriccioso
May 15, 2013

Sally Jewell, the new secretary of the Department of the Interior, spent a short time discussing firefighting at a hearing of the Senate Committee on Indian Affairs on May 15.

“There are a number of fires to put out,” she said at one point, talking about specific Department policy on how its officials prioritize their firefighting efforts in rural areas—some of which are currently searing reservation areas in the West.

She could have easily applied the same adage to the number of critical issues she must oversee that impact tribes and American Indian citizens—and senators at the hearing were quick to pepper her with questions on how she would do so, especially on education, renewable and conventional energy development, climate change impacts, sequestration, water, trust, leasing policy, Alaska Native and Native Hawaiian concerns, and tribal consultation. The list went on and on and on.

“You’re going to feel like you’re [being] double-teamed by North Dakota,” Sen. Heidi Heitkamp (D-N.D.) joked to Jewell at one point, referring to tribal law enforcement, child welfare, and reservation safety issues that both she and Sen. John Hoeven (R-N.D.) brought up during the hearing, as they requested enhanced agency attention to these areas.

The incoming secretary, whose previous experience with tribes was largely limited to relations she had with them while she worked as a commercial banker (which she readily noted during the hearing ) probably felt like she was much more than double-teamed as senators highlighted so many Indian areas with vast need for improvement.

This was her first testimony before the Senate Committee on Indian Affairs since being sworn in as Secretary of the U.S. Department of the Interior on April 12. Kevin Washburn, Assistant Secretary for Indian Affairs at Interior, was attending a tribal child welfare conference in South Dakota, so he was not in attendance. Lawrence Roberts, Deputy Assistant Secretary for Indian Affairs, was at her side instead, filling in some gaps for her as she testified, as she sometimes asked him for details to offer the senators. (Related story: Great Plains ICWA Summit Hoping to Address Native Foster Care Concerns)

Jewell retained a composed demeanor throughout much of the questioning, seeming to realize it could be a full-time job for her just to oversee Indian issues at her new Department. Unfortunately, she can’t do that, so she must prioritize, she made clear. Also unfortunate, no senator asked Jewell if she believes that tribes deserve their own devoted Cabinet level agency to better serve them and their citizens.

One of her main goals, she said, is to improve Indian education at the 183 schools Interior oversees.

“Indian education is an embarrassment…to you and to us,” she testified, adding that she wants tribal self determination and self governance to play a big role in creating academically rigorous and culturally relevant curricula. (Many past secretaries at Interior have made similar promises without much action—a reality Heitkamp highlighted in talking about how policymakers in her state responded with rhetoric to many Indian problems when she previously served as Attorney General in North Dakota.)

Jewell said that the Department has spent $2 billion on Indian school improvements and renovations over the last 10 years, but there are still 68 Interior schools that have “vast needs.”

Sen. Al Franken (D-Minn.) said he knew the bleak situation all too well, noting that a school on the Leech Lake Reservation in his state currently has a leaking roof, mold, rodents, and generally unsafe conditions.

Franken added that President Barack Obama has asked for no funding in his 2014 budget to go toward rebuilding such schools. “This is unacceptable, and I hope you will work to change that request in the future,” he told Jewell.

Senators on both sides of the aisle expressed concern that federal sequestration has harmed tribes without regard for federal trust responsibility and the unique nation-to-nation relationship tribes share with the federal government—and some lamented that Indian children are being most hurt.

“We need more resources,” Jewell said on the schools issue, which was an overriding theme of her testimony.

Sen. Jon Tester (D-Mont.) told Jewell that he understands her plight. “[There is] one finger pointing at you, and three fingers pointing back at Congress,” he said regarding his desire for her to press for more water project funding for Indian country. “You’ve got to fight…if there is a plan, I think we can get it done.”