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"Joint Resolution of Apology to Native People,"

by John Dossett November/December 2008 issue of Poverty & Race

Over the past several sessions of Congress, several Senators and Representatives have introduced a Congressional Resolution “to 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.” Senator Sam Brownback, the conservative and strongly Christian Senator from Kansas, has been one of the most outspoken proponents of the apology resolution and introduced the first version (S. J. RES. 37) during the 108th Congress.

The Apology Resolution references the historical importance of tribes in the United States and acknowledges that Native people suffered cruelly as a result of the United States’ reservation policy and military massacres. In particular, the Resolution lists such events such as the Trail of Tears, The Long Walk, the Sand Creek Massacre in 1864 and the Wounded Knee Massacre in 1890. The Resolution acknowledges the resilience and unique nature of Native Peoples’ cultures; and that Native Peoples’ creator has endowed Native People with certain inalienable rights.

The National Congress of American Indians has worked with Congressional leadership to analyze the impact of the Apology Resolution. NCAI solicited responses to the proposed language and facilitated discussion among tribal leadership and Congress on the issue. Tribal leadership across Indian Country has offered a variety of responses to the Apology Resolution.

Some tribal leaders are in favor of the Resolution, believing that an apology would begin a process for reconciliation for past injustices, offering a way to move past historical wrongs that linger in Native communities and refocus on the future.  Others tribal leaders believe that an apology must be accompanied by actions to repair the wrongs. “Sorry we stole your land, but we are keeping the land” isn’t much of an apology. The federal government continues to fiercely resist a settlement for mismanagement of Indian trust funds [see accompanying article on Cobell lawsuit]; continues to underfund tribal health care and education; and has done little to restore tribal lands or support economic development. Tribes are denied the ability to develop an equitable tax base necessary for infrastructure and services, similar to state and local governments, and the Supreme Court continues to chip away at tribal jurisdiction at every opportunity.

In late 2008, the Senate was considering a reauthorization of the Indian Health Care Improvement Act that would have done much to modernize reservation health care. The Apology Resolution was attached to the health care bill, but so was a meaningless and politically charged amendment on abortion. (All federal spending on abortion is already prohibited by the Hyde Amendment.) As intended, the abortion amendment became a flash point for election year politics, and the critical Indian health care bill and the Apology Resolution failed to move through the House of Representatives. In this environment, it is difficult for tribal leaders to see that an apology by a majority in Congress is sincerely intended.

John Dossett is the General Counsel for the National Congress of American Indians.

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