The leader of the Senate Indian Affairs Committee said on Wednesday he would help secure passage of a resolution to apologize to Native peoples for their treatment by the United States.
Fresh off his role in securing a compromise on judicial nominations, Sen. John McCain (R-Arizona), the chairman of the committee, held the first-ever hearing on the apology resolution.
He praised Sen. Sam Brownback, a conservative Republican from Kansas, for introducing the measure.
"Reviewing the history of this government's treatment of Native Americans makes painfully obvious that the government has repeatedly broken its promises and caused great harm to the nation's original inhabitants," McCain said.
McCain noted that the resolution was approved unanimously by the committee last year but never made it to a floor vote. He promised Brownback that the situation would change under his leadership.
"Maybe I could do what I can to assist you in get some floor consideration of this issue," McCain told his colleague. "I'd be glad to support you in whatever way I can."
Brownback welcomed the backing and said he was prompted to seek the apology after he encountered lingering feelings of bitterness among Native people his state, home to four
federally recognized tribes. He pointed to a long history of "broken treaties, mistreatment, and dishonorable dealings" that demand reconciliation.
What this resolution does do is recognize and honor the importance of Native Americans to this land and to our nation -� in the past and today -- and offers an official apology to the Native peoples for
the poor and painful choices our government sometimes made to disregard its solemn
word," he testified.
Two tribal witnesses welcomed the measure. Tex Hall, the president of the National Congress of American Indians, called it a "long-time coming."
"Passage of the apology resolution would mark the federal government's first effort to extend an official apology for the years of wrongdoing in interactions with Indian tribes," Hall told the committee.
Dr. Negiel Bigpond Sr., a member of the Euchee Tribe that is now part of the Creek Nation and
president of the Rivers Native American Training Center in Oklahoma, said the resolution was an important step in the reconciliation process between Native and non-Native citizens of the country.
"I believe that acknowledging past atrocities and asking the indigenous First Nations people of this land for forgiveness is needed as a first step for healing of this land," he testified.
But a prominent Alaska Native leader said was troubled. Ed Thomas, the president of the Tlingit and Haida Tribes of Alaska and a vice president of NCAI, recalled his "reluctant
support" of the resolution when it was first introduced in the 108th Congress.
That feeling has since turned into serious doubt, Thomas continued. He cited major failings in the handling of billions of dollars in Indian trust funds, a lack of tribal consultation, cuts in federal funds to Indian programs and an erosion of tribal sovereignty in the courts.
"Things have deteriorated so much that it is a fact that federal prisoners get more health care funding per capita than Native Americans," he said. Any apology would be worthless unless accompanied by "positive action" to correct and compensate for centuries of neglect, mismanagement and pain, he added.
McCain sought to address some of Thomas' concerns by noting that an apology would heighten public awareness of Native issues and could lead to positive changes. He cited the U.S. government's apology in 1988 to Japanese-Americans who were interned, or whose ancestors were interned, in camps during World War II.
"I believe that is very likely that an apology could have the same effect because I'm always astonished and disappointed when I find out how little Americans in general -- and even
federal officials in particular -- know about the history of our relationships with Native Americans," he argued.
Hall pointed out that the U.S. in 1994 apologized to Native Hawaiians for the unlawful overthrow of their kingdom in the late 1800s. Even Canada apologized to its Native population, he said, a move that was accompanied by a financial set-aside to be used for healing initiatives.
Negiel said Native Americans are more than willing to accept an apology and start healing for events like the Sand Creek Massacre and abuse at government boarding schools. "This is a first step to many things," he said. "This is history making."
"My hope is that the president of the United States will stand before all of the chiefs, before all of the tribes, and say 'Can you forgive our government, our forefathers, for how we treated you?'" he continued.
The next step for the resolution would be approval by the committee, which McCain said he expects, followed by a floor vote. A similar resolution has been introduced in the House.
Witness List / Written Testimony
Sen. Sam Brownback
Statement on Senate Floor
| Text of S.J.Res.15 [As