Andrew Mollison - Cox News Service
WASHINGTON -- An official apology for the way the United States and its citizens have mistreated American Indians and the country's other indigenous people is starting to move through Congress.
"I know there's potential for this being controversial," said the apology's author, Sen. Sam Brownback, R-Kan. He recalled the barrage of vitriolic phone calls a few years ago that blocked a similar attempt by former Rep. Tony Hall, D-Ohio, to obtain an official apology to the descendants of former slaves.
"But the circumstances are different," he said. "With the maturity of the sovereign tribes being acknowledged, the opening this fall (on Washington's Mall) of the museum recognizing the contribution of Native Americans, this is a moment that could be used, not to heal all old wounds, but to start building a new relationship."
The Senate this month passed, 92-0, a resolution saying it "joins with the president in expressing apology for the humiliation suffered by the prisoners in Iraq and their families."
But with that exception, Congress hasn't approved an official apology since 1993. That year, the House voted overwhelmingly and the Senate voted 65-34 to apologize to Native Hawaiians on behalf of the United States for the overthrow of the Kingdom of Hawaii 100 years previously.
The Senate Committee on Indian Affairs is expected to advance Brownback's bill to the Senate calendar in June.
The co-sponsors include the panel's chair, Sen. Ben Nighthorse Campbell, R-Co., a member of the Northern Cheyenne Tribe who is the only American Indian in Congress, and its vice chair, Sen. Daniel Inouye, D-Hawaii.
The apology bill says the United States "acknowledges years of official depredations, ill-conceived policies, and the breaking of covenants by the United States Government regarding Indian tribes."
It also "apologizes on behalf of the people of the United States to all Native Peoples for the many instances of violence, maltreatment, and neglect inflicted on Native Peoples by citizens of the United States."
To show that the measure isn't a back-door attempt to settle ongoing
legal disputes, it also says, "Nothing in this Joint Resolution
authorizes any claim against the United States or serves as a settlement
of any claim against the United States."
And the president is urged to join Congress in its apology.
"Canada has done it, but the United States has never formally apologized for all the atrocities and double-dealing," said Tex Hall, president of the 250-tribe National Congress of American Indians.
Hall, who is also chairman of the Mendan, Hidasa and Arikara Nation in Fort Berthold, N.D., said, "It's only one small step, but without an apology you can't do the healing, and without the healing, we can't come together as one country."
Others endorsing the resolution's broad thrust include leaders and tribal councils from more than three dozen American Indian tribes and Alaskan Native communities, as well as the Union of Orthodox Jewish Congregations of America.
The apology "will not right the wrongs of the past, but may correct misdirected policies of the present," wrote Anthony Johnson of Lapwai, Idaho, chairman of the Nez Perce Tribe.
The official apology was described as "long overdue" by John Yellow Bird Steele, president of the Ogallala Sioux Tribe in Pine Ridge, S.D.
University of Maryland political scientist Ron Walters, who has tracked efforts to obtain reparations for descendents of slaves, said some African Americans were bound to ask why they didn't get an apology.
"When President Clinton went over to Africa and came close to an apology, Republicans took to the floor the next day and excoriated him," Walters recalled. However, President Bush and his putative Democratic challenger John Kerry, who both oppose reparations, might offer election-year support for apologies, Walters said.
The major parties have stepped up appeals to Indian tribes. One lure is casino revenue, which has given some tribes enough money for substantial political contributions. Another is votes: Native Americans are less than 1 percent of the U.S. population, but their votes provided most of the winner's victory margin in recent Senate elections in Washington and South Dakota.