Should the U.S. apologize?


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.

The Senate

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.”

American Indian

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

Indian country.

“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

fractured society.