U.S. Apology To Native Americans: Unnecessary Or Not Enough?

The U.S. Senate last week issued a resolution last week that calls on President Obama to formally apologize for historic violence and injustices inflicted upon Native Americans by the federal government. Some think such an apology is unnecessary, while others say it's not enough. Rob Capriccioso, Washington Staff reporter for the newspaper Indian Country Today, is joined by Sen. John McCoy, a state representative from Washington, to discuss the measure and whether it has the ability to reconcile.

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MICHEL MARTIN, host:

This is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. I'm Michel Martin.

Coming up, 11 years ago today, Matthew Shepard, the young Laramie Wyoming college student died after he was attacked and robbed by two men in part because he was gay. In a moment, we'll talk about Laramie 10 years later and the efforts to make sense of it all then and now, that conversation in just a few minutes.

But first, another chapter in the American story on this Columbus Day. For many people, Columbus Day is just another day off from work. For others, a day to celebrate Italian-American pride and American history; but for others, it is a day of grief, the beginning of the end of a way of life for this country's original people.

For most of us, the troubled history that followed that encounter of cultures is known, but for many it is not reconciled. And last week, the Senate attempted to take a step toward reconciliation by passing a resolution that calls for an official apology to Native Americans.

Democratic Senator Byron Dorgan of North Dakota, who co-sponsored the bill said it is difficult to know the history of the first Americans and the destructive policies our government has too often followed regarding them, and not be filled both with sadness and regret. Some, of course, find an apology absurd at this point in our history, but others say it does not go far enough.

Joining us to talk more about this is Rob Capriccioso. He's Washington staff reporter for the nation's largest Native American newspaper, Indian Country Today. He's also enrolled member of the Sault Ste. Marie tribe of Chippewa Indians. Also with us on the phone is Democratic State Representative John McCoy of Washington. He's part of the Tulalip tribe, and he's also chairman of the National Caucus of Native American State Legislators. I thank you both for speaking with us.

Mr. ROB CAPRICCIOSO (Reporter, Indian Country Today, Washington): Hi, Michel, great to be here.

Representative JOHN MCCOY (Democrat, Washington): Yes, great to be on the show.

MARTIN: Rob, I'm going to start with you. The resolution passed the Senate last year, and then died in the House. What are the dynamics of the bill? Why is the opposition to the bill in the House so strong?

Mr. CAPRICCIOSO: Well, it's not necessarily that there are many House members who are clamoring against the bill. It's just the matter that there is so much on the plate of the House of Representatives as we all know with health care and all these other issues that people are looking at that an apology for Native Americans, while so many tribal members would want that to be the top priority, it just hasn't been.

And people in the Senate have taken the opportunity to really make that part of their agenda. And Senator Byron Dorgan, as you mentioned, he's the chairman of the Senate Indian Affairs Committee. So he looks for ways to put these kinds of bills into other bills. And so, this was attached to a Defense Appropriation Bill. And so, by doing that, they all want to get the military spending in, he's kind of being smart about attaching that and then it becomes part of the Senate's passed bills.

MARTIN: Is there any sense of gravity around the opposition? And have we an indication that if the bill reaches the president's desk whether he'll sign it?

Mr. CAPRICCIOSO: If it moves in the House, I think this will be a bipartisan issue. If it comes to the president, you know, he's in an interesting situation because part of the language of the bill does urge him to make this apology, to make amends on these historical injustices.

MARTIN: But it doesn't call for reparations?

Mr. CAPRICCIOSO: It does not call for reparations. That's one thing that the Senators were very cognizant that they weren't putting in their reparation language, they weren't putting in that this is going to help settle any long ongoing lawsuits. This is meant to be a meaningful good gesture towards Native Americans.

And I should mention here too that I mentioned a lot about Senator Dorgan, but Senator Brownback in the Senate, he's a Republican from Kansas, has really shepherded this through. Since 2004, he started bringing this up with his colleagues. He's introduced other bills about this. And then last year was the first time that his bill got the attention, and then this year it passed the Senate.

MARTIN: Rob's covering this bill as a journalist, so I'm not going to ask him his personal opinion of the legislation. So, Delegate McCoy, I'd like to turn to you for that. What is your feeling about this apology? Is this important to you? Does this matter?

Rep. MCCOY: Yes, it's a long time in coming, if you stop and think about it, the African-Americans have been apologized to, the Japanese-Americans, and some form of the Hispanics have been apologized to. So it only makes sense because we are the indigenous groups of the United States.

So, although, there is no money tied to this, but the apology is important. The only thing that disappoints me is that if it gets to the president, I'm sure he'll sign it and he'll make the apology. It just, I'm disappointed it's an African-American making the apology and not a Caucasian.

MARTIN: Really, why?

Rep. MCCOY: Well, it's the symbolism of it. The African-Americans and the Native Americans, we were treated the same, very harshly.

MARTIN: Can I ask you about this whole question of moving forward? There are those who in - particularly when previous apologies have been advanced have said this is exactly the kind of thing that does not move us forward. What is the point of looking back to a chapter in American History before there even was an American government, which is when many of the things which we now consider atrocities began?

This was the same argument that was made during last year's discussion around the apologies for slavery or expressions of regret, which some states have chosen to adopt instead. What do you say to that?

Rep. MCCOY: It's an acknowledgement of what happened during all those years. In essence, we're correcting history. Yes, now we're acknowledging it. As in the past U.S. history books and everything put Native Americans in a negative position. Consequently, because of the Indian boarding schools and how Native Americans were treated, and my father was a product of the Indian boarding schools, and he had scars from it. So now there is an acknowledgement from the federal government that these things happened, and now it's time to correct the record and to show exactly what happened.

MARTIN: Would you just briefly remind us of the Indian boarding schools? There are in some parts of the country who are not familiar. Will you tells us again about what you're talking about?

Rep. MCCOY: Well, Indian boarding schools were primarily set up as military boarding schools, so there's quite a structure. The students were punished if they spoke their own language. Their hair was cut. And they were beaten. They were abused. The girls were sexually abused. And it was just a horrible life. You got to remember grandparents and great grandparents that went through those boarding schools tell the stories of what happened to them. And so, the kids are saying why should I go there if I'm going to be beaten and harassed?

MARTIN: If you're just joining us, this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. I'm Michel Martin and I'm speaking with Rob Capriccioso, Washington staff reporter for Indian Country Today, and State Representative John McCoy of Washington, chairman of the National Caucus of Native American State Legislators. We're talking about a proposed apology to Native Americans, which is working its way through the Congress.

To that point Rob, what about the timing? Why now?

Mr. CAPRICCIOSO: It's kind of like all the stars have aligned I think, and I think that advocates in Congress do see President Obama as maybe a route, where they know that if it does get through Congress that he would be open to considering apologizing.

I think that many will say that if this had happened during the Bush administration, maybe it wouldn't have been signed into law. Maybe he would have made the apology, we don't know. But I think that Senator Brownback being a Republican himself, I think he was even a little - you know, I can't say for sure - but a little wondering if this happened previously would an apology be made. So maybe there's a little hope now that with President Obama that he would be open to this, although I would mention that a grassroots group of native Americans has asked him earlier this year about boarding schools and have noted all of the things that they representative, just brought up the atrocities and President Obama hasn't said whether he would apologize specifically for boarding school issues.

So calling the White House, they haven't said if he's open to that as well. And I've pushed them on that as a reporter. So, it remains to be seen if all these stars aligning are actually going to bring about something. But I think there is a lot of hope out there.

MARTIN: Finally, Delegate McCoy, you're saying let's do this and then let's move on. If this apology is passed and signed into law, what would you like to happen after that?

Rep. MCCOY: Well, in Washington State although we don't have the apology, we're moving on because I've been successful in getting the travel history, culture and language legislation passed that is starting to be taught in the Washington State common schools, so that is happening. So, this helps me get the ammunition to work with the various school districts to make it happen.

MARTIN: And for example, on a day like Columbus Day which, you know, some jurisdictions will take that as a holiday. As I've mentioned at the beginning, it's, for some, it's a big kind of a Italian American pride day. How would you like this day to be thought of, if you don't mind my asking that?

Rep. MCCOY: Well, among most of the tribes that I work with, we don't put any emphasis on today. It's kind of like just another day. Some of our more aggressive friends will start to say things like, you know, that was the beginning of the end. And I myself, you know, have said, you know, we have the immigration law debate going on right now. And I've said while if we tightened up the immigration laws in 1492, we'd be having a different conversation.

MARTIN: Well, well said.

(Soundbite of laughter)

MARTIN: Rob, do you mind if I ask you, you represent the encounter of cultures, if you will. You are part-Italian and you are a Native American. And do you mind if I ask your thoughts about how you think about this day?

Mr. CAPRICCIOSO: Certainly, no problem. I've talked about this before. It's funny because my dad very much Italian, as you can tell from my last name and my mom very much Native American and always has been proud of that aspect of her and has made her children instilled with the beliefs of what our culture is.

So, we always joke that Columbus Day is an interesting day to celebrate in my family because obviously my dad is proud of who he is and my mom is very proud of who she is. So, it's kind of like a conflict within, in a way, but I think that for everyone it's different how they look at the day.

For us, you know, my dad has always looked at the historical atrocities that were committed to Native Americans. He's taken the time to understand it, especially being married to my mom, loving and falling in love with her was part of that learning about her life. And so, he used the day to really think about those kind of issues. So, he may have had the day off from work sometimes but he didn't just go to a football game or something. It was a day to reflect, a day to maybe think about an apology.

(Soundbite of laughter)

MARTIN: Rob Capriccioso, Washington staff reporter for Indian Country Today. He was here with me in our Washington, D.C. studio and also with us State Representative John McCoy of Washington. He's a Democrat and he's chairman of The National Caucus of Native American State Legislators. We were able to reach him at a conference in San Diego. Gentlemen, I thank you both so much for speaking with us.

Mr. CAPRICCIOSO: Thank you so much.

Rep. MCCOY: Thank you.

(Soundbite of music)

MARTIN: Just ahead, when Matthew Shepard, a gay college student was murdered in Laramie, Wyoming, a theater company went to town to try to figure out what it all meant. A decade later, they went back. They and Laramie's residents are still finding meaning in the murder.

Father ROGER SCHMITTHE (University of Wyoming): It does teach a heinous prejudice against gay people is. How (unintelligible) it is and that we have to work as a society to stop that.

MARTIN: We'll tell you about "The Laramie Project: An Epilogue." That's coming up on TELL ME MORE from NPR News. I'm Michel Martin.

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