New York Times—Opinion, 06/28/2004
The Long Trail to Apology
All manner of unusual things can happen in Washington in an election year, but few seem so refreshing as a proposed official apology from the federal government to American Indians - the first ever - for the "violence, maltreatment and neglect" inflicted upon the tribes for centuries. A resolution of formal apology for "a long history of official depradations and ill-conceived policies" has been quietly cleared for a Senate vote, with proponents predicting passage. Tribal leaders have been offering mixed reactions of wariness ("words on paper") and approval somewhat short of delight ("a good first step").
True, no federal reparations or claim settlements are at stake. But the rhetoric of the resolution pulls few punches about the genocidal wounds American Indians suffered in being uprooted for the New World. The Trail of Tears, the Long Walk, the Wounded Knee Massacre and other travails are specified in the resolution, which calls on President Bush to "bring healing to this land" by acknowledging the government's offensive history.
The apology would have been received as fighting words at the Capitol in the Indian war era, when the government pursued military domination and tribes fought back. But times change, albeit very slowly sometimes, and this time it is significant that the political clout of Native Americans has never been clearer. The parties are vying for support in key political arenas, with the narrowly divided Senate particularly in play. Native Americans' power is considerable in tribal bases like South Dakota, where their turnout was crucial in electing Senator Tim Johnson in 2002; in Alaska, where they are 16 percent of eligible voters; and in tight presidential states like Arizona, New Mexico and Nevada.
Severe health, education and economic troubles still bedevil the reservations, despite the casino riches of a minority. Accordingly, the tribes must aim for more than an apology as they pursue ambitious voter-enrollment programs. An official apology is indeed words on paper. But approval by Congress would be an acknowledgment of modern tribal power, especially if the president presented it this September at the opening of the National Museum of the American Indian in Washington.