Apology to American Indians Moves Forward

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A resolution making its way through Congress offers an apology to all Native peoples on behalf of the United States. It passed the Senate as an amendment to the Indian Health Care Improvement Act. The legislation comes after Australian and Canadian governments have both apologized to their native populations in recent years. Melissa Block talks to the measure's sponsor, Sen. Sam Brownback.

MELISSA BLOCK, host:

Canadian Prime Minister Steven Harper stood before parliament on Wednesday and offered this formal apology.

Prime Minister STEVEN HARPER (Canada): The government of Canada sincerely apologizes and asks the forgiveness of the aboriginal peoples of this country for failing them so profoundly.

BLOCK: Harper repeated the apology in French.

Prime Minister HARPER: (Speaking French)

BLOCK: And in Cree.

Prime Minister HARPER: (Speaking Cree)

BLOCK: And in Ojibway.

Prime Minister HARPER: (Speaking Ojibway)

BLOCK: And in Inuit.

Prime Minister HARPER: (Speaking Inuit)

BLOCK: Canada was apologizing for government policy that forcibly removed aboriginal children from their homes and sent them to residential schools, where many were abused. Phil Fontaine, national chief of the Assembly of First Nations, spoke of generations who suffered.

Mr. PHIL FONTAINE (National Chief, Assembly of First Nations): The memories of residential schools sometimes cut like merciless knives at our souls. This day will help us to put that pain behind us.

(Soundbite of applause)

BLOCK: In this country, Congress has for years had similar legislation before it, but hasn't acted. Republican Senator Sam Brownback of Kansas is the sponsor of a resolution that finally passed the Senate in February; a House version is in the works. His resolution acknowledges a long history of official depredations and ill-conceived policies toward Indian tribes, and apologizes for violence, maltreatment and neglect.

Senator SAM BROWNBACK (Republican, Kansas): I just think reconciliation is one of great needs we've got in the country and in the world today. And we get people that are just at each other, and sometimes they're not even sure why anymore, but they just don't get along. And here is a clear one that we need reconciliation on. And what we need is for the U.S. government to admit, yes, we did this, and yes, it is wrong, and will you forgive us?

BLOCK: Is your commitment to this based on some experience back home in Kansas?

Sen. BROWNBACK: It's based on a couple of experiences. Number one, right after I went into the U.S. Senate I started traveling around the state and introducing myself. And I noticed, particularly when I went to the Native American areas and tribes in our state, that there was just this real anger that was there, and it was palpable. And I started to ask the question, well, why is this? Why has your American experience led to this sort of feeling? And digging in to it, then people would start talking about the stories and then the heritage. And then Senator Ben Nighthorse Campbell was a big part of this for me. And I would sit on the floor and talk about some of the heritage and then he would talk about some of the oral history from Native Americans and abusive treatment. And both of those stimulated me on this.

BLOCK: How do you explain that this has been such a sticking point? There have been resolutions like this kicking around in Congress for some time. Nothing has happened. Why is that?

Sen. BROWNBACK: Apologizing's tough. Tough on a personal basis. It's equally if not more difficult on a corporate basis. It's acknowledging that something was wrong and did happen. I just think that's a very hard thing for people to do.

BLOCK: You know, when Bill Clinton went to Africa in 1998 he tiptoed toward an apology for the U.S. role in the slave trade and was raked over the coals by Republicans for it. Is that a fear here, and does your party seem to have an issue with this in particular, do you think?

Sen. BROWNBACK: Well, maybe it's a fear here. I'd like to think that, you know, we're moving on forward as a country. And I can tell you, I've been out there on this for several years and have not gotten that much of a negative pushback. I've gotten some, but not that much of one.

BLOCK: Are there fears, do you think, that that if you apologize, then that leads to things like reparations or possible grounds for lawsuits? There is talk of, you know, a genocide case before the World Court.

Sen. BROWNBACK: Well, I mean there are fears of those sort of things, but it shouldn't keep you from doing the right thing. Even of you have those sort of fears. And we specifically in this apology say this does not settle any property disputes or settlement claims in anybody's favor. This is a straight apology without regards for any sort of property issues or disputes. And those are frequently the things that keep us from doing the right thing and then getting to reconciliation, which is the desperate need that we have.

BLOCK: Would you want to see, Senator Brownback, assuming this resolution does get passed, would you want to see a formal statement from President Bush, much as Canada got from their prime minister?

Sen. BROWNBACK: I would. I mean that's up to the president to decide. It would be my hope that there would be some solemn ceremony or event with a number of Native Americans and Native American leaders around.

BLOCK: And do you actually think that could happen in the twilight and in the final months of the Bush administration?

Sen. BROWNBACK: I do. This is one of those intangibles that's highly valuable and highly important. And that's really what we've got to do now.

BLOCK: Well, Senator Brownback, it's good to talk to you. Thanks so much.

Sen. BROWNBACK: My pleasure, all the best.

BLOCK: That's Senator Sam Brownback, Republican of Kansas.

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