In his first press appearance in the U.S. after a whirlwind tour of Afghanistan and the Middle East in late July, an obviously fatigued Sen. Barack Obama took questions from Native American, Asian American, Hispanic and African American journalists gathered at the UNITY conference in Chicago.
A member of the Native American Journalists Association stood and asked Obama if he supported the congressional resolution referred to as the “apology bill” – the Senate and House resolutions apologizing for 200 years of U.S. bad behavior toward American Indians.
“I personally would want to see our tragic history or the tragic elements of our history acknowledged, and I think that there’s no doubt that, when it comes to our treatment of Native Americans, as well as other persons of color in this country, that we’ve got… some very sad and difficult things to account for,” Obama responded, and added that he would want “to consult with Native American tribes and councils” about the precise wording of an official apology.
“The most important thing for the U.S. government to do is not just
offer apologies, but offer deeds. I have to confess, I’m more concerned
with providing a better way of life,” Obama said.
resolution, S.J. Res. 4, sponsored by Sen. Sam Brownback, a Republican
from Kansas, would “acknowledge a long history of official depredations
and ill-conceived policies by the United States Government regarding
Indian tribes and offer an apology to all Native Peoples on behalf of
the United States.”
Brownback’s measure has been introduced in
several sessions of Congress, and was passed last year by the Senate
Indian Affairs Committee. The 2005 version of the resolution was
endorsed by the National Congress of American Indians; but there are
mixed feelings about the apology bill around Indian country.
is a history to this kind of resolution. The Friends Committee on
National Legislation (FCNL), a Quaker lobbying group, noted that the
U.S. issued an apology in 1988 to Japanese Americans, who were put in
detention camps during 1988; and there was an official apology in 1993,
to Native Hawaiians for the illegal overthrow of the Hawaiian Kingdom.
Internationally, Canada issued an apology in 1998 for its benighted
actions toward the Native population to the north. And in February of
this year, Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd apologized to the
400,000 Aborigines living Down Under for past racist policies and
The reluctance some Indian tribal leaders feel
about the apology resolution concerns current U.S. government policies
that are harmful to Indians. They note that the government continues to
under-fund reservation and urban Indian educational, health and housing
programs. And FCNL, in their analysis of the issue, point out that the
resolution is a “formal apology, but the joint resolution notes that it
does not authorize any claim against the United States or serve as a
settlement of any claim against the U.S.”
proponents of the apology bill point out that the deep anger still felt
by American Indians over their historical mistreatment at the hands of
government officials – forced removals, massacres, broken treaties,
suppression of traditional religious ceremonies, economic exploitation
of Indians lands, abuses in boarding schools, etc. – is manifested in
the high rates of alcoholism and other social pathologies affecting
Indian families today. Therefore, these tribal leaders and activists
feel that a formal apology from the lawmakers and the president in
Washington would serve to promote spiritual and emotional healing in
“Sometimes a metaphorical clean slate is needed
to build a better foundation for the future of relations between Native
Nations and the United States,” stated Joe Shirley, Jr., president of
the Navajo Nation.
A measured endorsement came from Tim Coulter,
founder and executive director of the Indian Law Resource Center in
Helena, Montana, after the Senate passed the Brownback apology as an
amendment to Indian Health Care Improvement Act Reauthorization bill
earlier this year.
“I think it’s proper to thank members of
Congress who are sponsors of this apology for their good intentions
because the apology is called for; but the apology can’t be considered
serious or genuine unless congressional steps are taken to ensure that
these ongoing wrongs are forever stopped,” Coulter told the Helena
Independent Record newspaper.
An official apology for U.S.
depredations against Indian people over the generations also could
educate the dominant society about the unique legal status of Indian
nations and the fact that federal treaties are still in effect. There
is plenty of room for education and healing to take place in our