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SAT: Secretary Haaland touring nationwide with investigating government-backed boarding schools in mind, New Mexico national forest supervisor gets new post, + More

Associated Press, Evan Vucci

Haaland tour casts light on Native boarding school abusesBy Sean Murphy, Associated Press

U.S. Secretary of the Interior Deb Haaland will visit Oklahoma on Saturday for the first stop on a yearlong nationwide tour to hear about the painful experiences of Native Americans who were sent to government-backed boarding schools designed to strip them of their cultural identities.

Haaland, of Laguna Pueblo in New Mexico, is the first Native American Cabinet secretary in U.S. history, and the agency she oversees recently released a report that identified more than 400 of the schools, which sought to assimilate Native children into white society during a period that stretched from the late 18th century until the late 1960s.

Although most closed their doors long ago and none still exist to strip students of their identities, some still function as schools, albeit with drastically different missions that celebrate the cultural backgrounds of their Native students. Among them is the Riverside Indian School in Anadarko, about 80 miles (129 kilometers) southwest of Oklahoma City, which is one of the oldest and is where Haaland will meet with former students and their descendants Saturday.

Riverside, which opened in 1871, serves students from grades four through 12 these days, offering them specialized academic programs as well as courses on cultural topics such as bead-working, shawl-making and an introduction to tribal art, foods and games. Currently operated by the Bureau of Indian Education, it has nearly 800 students from more than 75 tribes across the country, and the school's administration, staff and faculty are mostly Native American.

It is one of 183 elementary and secondary schools across the country funded by the Bureau of Indian Education that seek to provide education aligned with a tribe's needs for cultural and economic well-being, according to the bureau's website.

Until recently, the federal government hadn't been open to examining its role in the troubled history of Native American boarding schools, where children were taken from their families, prohibited from speaking their languages and often abused. That has changed because people who know about the trauma that was inflicted hold prominent positions in government.

At least 500 children died at such schools, but that number is expected to reach into the thousands or tens of thousands as more research is done.

The Interior Department's report includes a list of the boarding schools in what were states or territories that operated between 1819 and 1969 that had a housing component and received support from the federal government.

Oklahoma had the most, 76, followed by Arizona, which had 47, and New Mexico, which had 43. All three states still have significant Native American populations.

Former students might be hesitant to recount the painful past and trust a government whose policies were to eradicate tribes and, later, assimilate them under the veil of education. But some welcome the opportunity to share their stories for the first time.

Lahoma Schultz, a citizen of the Muscogee Nation who lives in Bixby, Oklahoma, said she uncovered records that show her grandfather was forced to wear military clothing, learn English and perform unpaid labor while attending boarding schools in Oklahoma and the Carlisle Indian Industrial School in Pennsylvania.

Schultz said she got angry as she pieced together how such schools affected generations of her family. Her mother, Mollie Hicks, attended boarding school for a semester in 1938 and was punished for speaking the Creek language.

"She said if she ever got married and had children, she would not teach them the language," Schultz said. "Here I am in my 70s trying to learn my language, and it's really disheartening."

Her mother's experience led Schultz to research boarding schools and her family history in the early 2000s after getting a doctorate in psychology. She has learned the names of relatives she never knew and better understands why her parents were adamant that their children not attend boarding schools.

"That's been healing, even for me, because I'm putting together more information on my own family," she said.

Top official during massive New Mexico blaze gets new postBy Susan Montoya Bryan, Associated Press

The supervisor of a national forest that erupted in flames earlier this year has been temporarily assigned to a post in Washington, D.C., as New Mexico looks to recover from its largest wildfire in record history and the U.S. Forest Service reviews its prescribed burn policies.

Debbie Cress will serve as acting deputy chief of staff in the office of U.S. Forest Service Chief Randy Moore. Her replacement to oversee the northern New Mexico forest was named Friday, but some have questioned the timing given that the wildfire has yet to be declared contained and recovery work has just begun.

Forest officials have dismissed criticism, saying the opportunity for Cress to work at headquarters initially came up in January and was the culmination of her work over the past year with the agency's leadership.

Cress acknowledged in a statement Friday that it was difficult timing as her home state deals with the aftermath of the massive wildfire. But she said local, state and federal officials have a unified commitment to post-fire repairs and to meeting the needs of the communities that depend on Sangre de Cristo mountain range for firewood and water supplies.

The blaze is the result of two planned burns that were meant to clear out overgrown and dead vegetation to reduce the threat of catastrophic wildfire. Instead, hot, dry and windy conditions helped push the flames across 534 square miles (1,383 square kilometers) of the Rocky Mountain foothills, destroying hundreds of homes and upending the lives of thousands of rural residents.

A recent review highlighted multiple missteps by Forest Service employees in planning for the prescribed fires, most notably a failure to fully grasp how dry conditions have become amid New Mexico's decades-long drought.

About 2,000 miles (3,219 kilometers) of dozer lines were carved into mountainsides and valleys, while firefighters armed with hand tools scratched in another 176 miles (283 kilometers) in hopes of corralling the fire.

Massive quantities of fire retardant and water were dropped by planes and helicopters to protect the community of Las Vegas and other small villages, but it was really the start of the monsoon season in June that helped to slow flames that had been churning since early April.

The price tag for suppression now totals $275 million, officials told The Associated Press. Another $2.5 million is going toward road work, storm inspection, seeding, debris removal and the protection of sites considered important to residents.

Cress' assignment in Washington will last four months. Carson National Forest Supervisor James Duran will lead the Santa Fe forest until Cress returns from her assignment.

Agency officials said such work details are common across the Forest Service and are used as both professional development and as a way to continue with agency business pending a permanent hire.

Joe Reddan, a retired ranger who used to work in northern New Mexico, told the Santa Fe New Mexican that even if Cress had been working on the assignment for months, she should have refrained from going.

"It's not going to help her out, and it's not going to help the credibility of the agency," he said, noting the lessons that could be learned from what happened and how to deal with the people impacted by such catastrophic fires.

The Forest Service is in the midst of a formal review of its prescribed fire operations nationwide that was prompted by the New Mexico blaze and fire danger levels that reached historic levels this spring. All planned burns have been put on hold pending the outcome.

Facing threats, some election workers weigh whether to stayBy Christina A. Cassidy, Associated Press

After polls closed in New Mexico's primary last month, a worker returning ballots and other election materials to the clerk's office in Santa Fe was followed by a partisan election observer driving so closely that mere inches separated their bumpers.

The poll worker was so rattled by the ordeal that she said she may not return for the upcoming November election, according to Santa Fe County Clerk Katharine Clark.

The incident is just one of many in which election officials and workers have felt threatened since the 2020 presidential election and the false claims that it was stolen from former President Donald Trump. A federal effort to investigate these threats has so far yielded three prosecutions since it was launched a year ago.

In the meantime, the harassment and death threats haven't stopped against those who have pushed back against the false claims. The threats have contributed to an exodus of election officials across the country, particularly at the local level, and made recruiting poll workers even harder — adding to the challenges of conducting smooth elections in the fall.

"I'm a Republican recorder living in a Republican county where the candidate that they wanted to win won by 2-to-1 in this county and still getting grief, and so is my staff," said Leslie Hoffman, the top election official in Yavapai County, Arizona.

Hoffman announced last week that she was resigning to take another job, saying her decision was motivated largely by "the nastiness that we have dealt with." Hoffman said the county elections director left for the same reasons.

On Friday, an official with the U.S. Department of Justice met with state election officials gathered in Louisiana for their summer conference and updated them on the work of a special task force, which was announced a year ago.

Three men have been charged by federal prosecutors, with one of them pleading guilty last month. In that case, Colorado Secretary of State Jena Griswold was the subject of multiple threatening posts on social media.

Griswold said the threats have not stopped. Just last week, a caller to her office's public phone line said: "Hey, I've got a message for the secretary and I want you to pass it along. The angel of death is coming for her in the name of Jesus Christ."

"The fact of the matter is they've only done three prosecutions when we know there are literally thousands and thousands of violent threats going to election workers and secretaries of state," Griswold said. "People are using threats as part of the attack on democracy to try to intimidate election workers, to try to intimidate county clerks and secretaries of state, and they are succeeding in some places."

Robert Heberle, deputy chief of the Justice Department's public integrity section, told state election officials Friday that federal investigators are working through each report to determine which cases can be prosecuted. He noted challenges in attributing threats often made anonymously and meeting a legal standard of proving a "serious expression of intent to commit an act of unlawful violence."

Heberle walked through a few examples in which threats were hostile but vague and would need additional evidence to prosecute. He encouraged secretaries of state to continue reporting every threat and said that having law enforcement contact those making threats might deter them from doing so again.

"I can assure you we take this set of issues, the threats to election workers, to election officials — whether they are elected, appointed or volunteers — incredibly seriously," Heberle said. "We understand the gravity of the issue."

He said dozens of cases were still under investigation and more prosecutions were expected.

A survey released earlier this year by the Brennan Center for Justice at NYU's School of Law found one in three election officials knew someone who had left a job in part because of threats and intimidation, and that one in six had experienced threats personally.

Federal and state election officials and Trump's attorney general have said there is no credible evidence the election was tainted. The former president's allegations of fraud also have been rejected by courts, including by judges Trump appointed.

Experts said it is critical that those making threats are held accountable to deter others from thinking they can do the same.

"The steps that the task force has taken, election officials are appreciative. But absolutely there is more to be done," said Liz Howard, a former state election official in Virginia now at the Brennan Center.

Among the recommendations that the Brennan Center has made is to expand the task force to include state and local law enforcement agencies that are typically the first contact for an election official.

A group of former and current election and law enforcement officials recently formed the Committee for Safe and Secure Elections, which plans to provide guidance and training for preventing and responding to threats and violence against election officials.

Last month, the U.S. Election Assistance Commission -- which distributes federal grants to election offices -- said its funding could be used to protect election officials against threats. Legislation has also been pursued at the state and federal level to increase penalties for those targeting election workers.

In Colorado, lawmakers passed a bill that makes it a misdemeanor to release online the personal information of election officials for the purpose of threatening them or their family.

On Capitol Hill, Sen. Amy Klobuchar, a Democrat from Minnesota, held a hearing last year highlighting the threats and urging federal protections for election workers. Klobuchar and other Senate Democrats have sent a letter asking the Department of Homeland Security and the FBI to issue a joint announcement to local law enforcement agencies to "ensure that they are aware of both the recent increase in these threats against election officials and federal resources for reporting and countering them."

Back in Santa Fe, County Clerk Clark said anxiety remains high among her staff. Employees have been trained on active shooter situations, they have requested bulletproof glass be installed and GPS tracking is used during the transportation of ballot boxes.

While she is concerned about her safety, she says she's not ready to quit or change careers, noting her responsibility to voters who elected her.

"My dad served in the military, my grandfather served in the military," Clark said. "I don't feel it's bad enough yet to feel that my public service is too much."