Former leader of BIA reflects on historic 'Never Again' apology

The victims of the 1890 massacre at Wounded Knee are loaded up on carts for burial. Photo from Wikipedia

A landmark apology from the Bureau of Indian Affairs came after the White House wouldn't allow then-president Bill Clinton to apologize for the taking of the Black Hills, the former director of the agency said on Wednesday.

Clinton's visit to the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota, the home of the Oglala Sioux Tribe, in July 1999 was historic in itself. A sitting president hadn't been to Indian Country for decades.

That's why the Black Hills apology came up as one of the "deliverables" for the event, recalled former Assistant Secretary for Indian Affairs Kevin Gover, a member of the Pawnee Nation. He credited the idea to his then-deputy, Michael Anderson, a member of the Muscogee Nation.

"We all thought it was a great idea," Gover said during a Native American Heritage Month event at the Interior Department headquarters in Washington, D.C.

President Bill Clinton visited the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota on July 7, 1999. Photo by Sharon Farmer / White House / NARA

So the BIA wrote up an apology for Clinton to deliver during his trip, Gover said. It would have come 20 years after a federal court ruled that the Black Hills were illegally taken from the Sioux Nation and more than 100 years after the United States broke treaties that promised the land to the tribes.

But Clinton never said any of the words that could have helped bring reconciliation to the tribes that have refused to accept compensation for their sacred territory, rejecting the release of a trust fund that has grown to more than $900 million.

"You know, we wrote it up and sent it over to the White House and never heard a word," said Gover, who now serves as director of the National Museum of the American Indian. "They wanted no part of that."

The idea, though, surfaced again as the BIA began to observe its 175th anniversary. Gover revived the apology -- again at the urging of Anderson -- and worked on it for several months before expanding it to cover other "misdeeds" of an agency that played a role in the loss of tribal lands, languages, cultures and even the lives of Indian peoples.

YouTube: Never Again apology delivered by Kevin Gover at ceremony acknowledging the 175th anniversary of the establishment of the Bureau of Indian Affairs

"We will never push aside the memory of unnecessary and violent death at places such as Sand Creek, the banks of the Washita River, and Wounded Knee," Gover said on September 8, 2000, in a speech that drew considerable media coverage at the time.

The Wounded Knee massacre of 1890 occurred after the U.S. -- still reeling from defeat at the Battle of the Little Bighorn in 1876 -- stopped fulfilling its treaty obligations to the Sioux tribes and essentially starved them into giving up the Black Hills through an act of Congress in 1877.

"Nor did the consequences of war have to include the futile and destructive efforts to annihilate Indian cultures," Gover continued. "After the devastation of tribal economies and the deliberate creation of tribal dependence on the services provided by this agency, this agency set out to destroy all things Indian."

"Never again will this agency stand silent when hate and violence are committed against Indians," Gover said. "Never again will we allow policy to proceed from the assumption that Indians possess less human genius than the other races. Never again will we be complicit in the theft of Indian property."

DOI Live: Never Again Apology: 15 Year Anniversary

Even though the apology was just words, Kevin Washburn, the current head of the BIA, stressed its significance. While tribes have credited President Barack Obama with implementing favorable policies and reversing negative ones, he said the speech set the stage for major change.

"We feel in the Obama administration like there's been tremendous steps forward these last seven years or so," said Washburn, a member of the Chickasaw Nation. "It's hard to imagine those being anywhere near successful as they've been without having this foundation upon which to build upon."

"There's nothing in the speech that people didn't know but had never been owned quite that way by federal officials," added Washburn, who asked Gover to come to DOI and discuss the apology at yesterday's event.

Chickasaw Nation Lt. Gov. Jefferson Keel agreed with that assessment. He was at the BIA when Gover delivered the apology 15 years ago and talked about his experience before offering a prayer at the event.

Tribal members young and old listen to President Bill Clinton during his the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota on July 7, 1999. Photo by Sharon Farmer / White House / NARA

"I was in the audience when it was delivered and can tell you it touched me as well as the other people that were there," Keel said.

Nearly a decade after the speech, Obama signed into law a defense spending bill that included an official apology to Native peoples for centuries of broken promises, "depredations" and "ill-conceived policies." Although it cited incidents of "violence, maltreatment, and neglect" those were blamed on "citizens of the United States" rather than federal agencies or Congress itself.

The apology was the work of then-Sen. Sam Brownback, a Republican who now serves as governor of Kansas. He held a ceremony in May 2010 to read the apology but the White House, nor anyone else in the federal government, has never officially presented it to Native peoples.

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