Office of Government Relations

Native American Heritage Month

November 23, 2022
Office of Government Relations

In the United States, November is nationally recognized as Native American Heritage Month. The Episcopal Church Office of Government Relations OGR) advocates for the federal government to advance several policies in solidarity with Indigenous communities in the United States. The Episcopal Church has long been committed to advocating in support of Indian Nations and Tribes, including the efforts to protect and honor treaty rights and their right to self-determination. More recently, the Church affirmed our commitment at the 80th General Convention to advocate for national legislation and policy that would address inequities in healthcare, education, nutrition, and housing that are detrimental to the quality of life of American Indians, Alaska Natives, and Native Hawaiians.

Two important issues OGR is engaged with are efforts to address the historical trauma caused by Indian boarding schools and protect Oak Flat from mining. This post includes background information and updates about these two issues and outlines concrete steps you can take to support their success.

Federal Indian Boarding Schools

Between 1819 and 1969, the United States Government operated or supported boarding schools for American Indian, Alaska Native, and Native Hawaiian children in a concerted effort to advance cultural assimilation and dispossess Indigenous peoples of their territory. Indian boarding school policies were responsible for the forceful removal of generations of Indigenous children from their homes and communities where they were subjected to abuse and denied the ability to practice their languages, religions, and cultural traditions.

In 2021, Interior Secretary Deb Haaland announced the Department of the Interior’s (DOI) Federal Indian Boarding School Initiative to address the troubled legacy of federal Indian boarding school policies. The ongoing federal initiative intends to review available historical records and shed light on historical traumas incited by our nation’s Indian boarding school policies.

DOI released the first volume of its Boarding School Initiative investigative report in May 2022. The report identified 408 boarding schools operated or supported by the federal government across 37 states (or then-territories) and found 53 burial sites for children across the system. DOI also announced its intentions to continue investigating the existence of other unidentified burial sites and report any more they might uncover. 

The report found that approximately 50 percent of the identified Indian boarding schools may have received support or involvement from a religious institution or organization. The Episcopal Church was one of the religious organizations contracted by the DOI to operate some of the boarding schools. As part of our Church’s work on racial reconciliation, justice, and our commitment to truth-telling, we are dedicated to addressing the legacy of violence and abuse perpetrated by boarding schools, including our Church’s role in the kidnapping of Indigenous children from their families by participating in the boarding school system. 

The initial findings published in Volume 1 of the DOI Bureau of Indian Affairs report, make it clear that the federal government should further commit itself to reconciliation work regarding the boarding school policies. At the 80th General Convention in Baltimore this summer, the Episcopal Church passed resolution GC 2022-A127, “Resolution for Telling the Truth about The Episcopal Church’s History with Indigenous Boarding Schools.” It affirmed the Church’s support for federal legislation to create a truth and healing commission on Indian boarding school policy and other steps the Church should commit to reconciling the traumas of the violent history of Indian boarding schools.

Congress introduced the Truth and Healing Commission for Indian Boarding School Policies Act (H.R. 5444/S. 2907) which would establish a commission with Native representatives and experts continuing the work of healing intergenerational trauma and advancing efforts for racial reconciliation started by the DOI. The legislation would also establish an advisory committee and survivor’s subcommittee. The commission would be responsible for completing formal investigations into the attempted termination of cultures, religions, and languages of Indigenous peoples. It would also investigate the impacts of the boarding school policies and the historical and intergenerational trauma they generated in Native communities. The commission would hold culturally respectful public hearings for victims, survivors, and community members to testify and discuss the impacts of the policies. It would conclude by outlining recommendations for the federal government to acknowledge and heal the trauma related to Indian boarding school policies.

 OGR has created an Action Alert to help you contact your members of Congress to urge them to pass the Truth and Healing Commission for Indian Boarding School Policies Act. It is crucial for Congress to work swiftly to create the commission while aging survivors from Indian boarding schools are still able to participate. For the commission to have the greatest impact on the survivors’ and their families’ healing, the survivor’s subcommittee must provide a space for comprehensive, personal, and historical testimonials.

Oak Flat

OGR has also been active in supporting federal legislative efforts to protect Chi’chil Biłdagoteel, also known as Oak Flat. The site, an hour east of Phoenix, Arizona, is in the Tonto National Forest and is sacred to the Apache and other local tribal communities. For centuries it has been central to the worship, prayer, and traditional ceremonies of local tribal communities. For many members of local tribes, the site is where they connect with Creation, their faith, their families, and their land.

The site also sits atop a copper deposit which has long made it vulnerable to efforts within the federal government seeking to remove key protections that prevent mining access. President Eisenhower instituted protections for the site when he signed a Public Land Order in 1955 to declare Oak Flat off-limits for mining due to its cultural and natural value. However, restrictions were loosened when President Nixon’s DOI created a legal loophole when they renewed the mining ban for Oak Flat in 1971. The renewal preserved protections of the land from mining while it remained under federal ownership, but it could be traded to private holders who would not be subject to the same land use restrictions.

In 2014, Senators Flake and McCain of Arizona added a section to the FY 2015 National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA), authorizing a land swap transferring Oak Flat from the Forest Service to Resolution Copper in exchange for other land owned by the Rio Tinto and BHP Billiton mining companies. The land swap was added as a last-minute rider to the military spending bill the night before the vote. The legislation mandated that the Forest Service must execute the land exchange within 60 days of the publication of a Final Environmental Impact Statement (FEIS).

Allowing the Resolution Copper Mine to proceed would permanently scar the landscape. Using a process known as block mining, the final project would create a massive crater two miles wide and 1,000 feet deep. It would negatively impact the soil, native vegetation, wildlife, natural springs, and groundwater supplies. Additionally, mining practices would deplete local aquifers amid Arizona’s megadrought. 

After years of dissent from local tribal communities, the Forest Service published the FEIS for the Resolution Copper mine and land swap in January 2021, five days before the end of the Trump Administration. Publishing the FEIS began the 60-day clock during which the land swap must be finalized. On March 1, President Biden’s Forest Service withdrew the FEIS temporarily halting the deal. Since then, the Biden administration’s Department of Justice has argued that the land swap should proceed, despite lawsuits attempting to prevent the land transfer.

After the FEIS was published, the non-profit activist group Apache Stronghold filed a lawsuit against the United States. They argued that allowing the Resolution Copper Mine to proceed would violate their tribal members’ religious freedom protections under the U.S. Constitution and the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA). 

In June 2022, the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled against Apache Stronghold, upholding the land swap. In a 2-1 decision, the majority wrote that “the land exchange does not substantially burden Apache Stronghold within the meaning of RFRA, even if the land exchange does make it ‘impossible’ for Apache Stronghold’s members to worship on Oak Flat.” Apache Stronghold intends to appeal its case to the Supreme Court. The best way to guarantee the long-term protection of the land from mining would be through federal legislation reversing the land swap. The Save Oak Flat Act (H.R.1884/S.915) is a bipartisan and bicameral bill introduced to Congress that would repeal the section in the National Defense Authorization Act mandating the land swap with Resolution Copper. You can contact your members of Congress to let them know the importance of preventing the destruction of a sacred indigenous site and urge them to pass the Save Oak Flat Act.

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