Making Amends with Native America: The Meaning of Resolution

By Michelle Chen Oct 13, 2009

Continuing a string of high-profile gestures of contrition, Congress has issued an official apology for the treatment of the country’s indigenous peoples. To be more exact, they resolved:

To acknowledge a long history of official depredations and ill-conceived policies by the Federal Government regarding Indian tribes and offer an apology to all Native Peoples on behalf of the United States. Whereas the ancestors of today’s Native Peoples inhabited the land of the present-day United States since time immemorial and for thousands of years before the arrival of people of European descent; Whereas for millennia, Native Peoples have honored, protected, and stewarded this land we cherish; Whereas Native Peoples are spiritual people with a deep and abiding belief in the Creator, and for millennia Native Peoples have maintained a powerful spiritual connection to this land, as evidenced by their customs and legends.

If those words aren’t reason enough to celebrate, the best part is the paragraphs describing how “the arrival of Europeans in North America opened a new chapter in the history of Native Peoples.” More specifically, this new chapter presented some of the most horrific scenes of ethnic cleansing and human rights abuses of the modern era. Such as:

Whereas the Federal Government condemned the traditions, beliefs, and customs of Native Peoples and endeavored to assimilate them by such policies as the redistribution of land under the Act of February 8, 1887 (25 U.S.C. 331; 24 Stat. 388, chapter 119) (commonly known as the `General Allotment Act’), and the forcible removal of Native children from their families to faraway boarding schools where their Native practices and languages were degraded and forbidden

And so the government “apologizes on behalf of the people of the United States to all Native Peoples for the many instances of violence, maltreatment, and neglect inflicted on Native Peoples by citizens of the United States” and vows to “move toward a brighter future where all the people of this land live reconciled as brothers and sisters, and harmoniously steward and protect this land together.” The statement glares with the irony of embedding the resolution in the Defense Appropriations Bill. But just to clarify, they tacked on this now-familiar disclaimer: nothing in the resolution “authorizes or supports any claim against the United States.” That last bit might refer to the legal battles still being waged over the rights and entitlements of indigenous communities, such as the Western Shoshone’s fight against the encroachment of the mining industry on their lands, or the struggle to compel the government to fully account for land assets that it has held from Indians “in trust” for generations. Robert Coulter of the Citizen Potawatomi Nation, executive director of the Indian Law Resource Center, proposes some enhancements to the resolution:

Congress should conduct hearings and adopt a resolution promising never again to take Indian or tribal property without due process of law and fair market compensation. The resolution should promise that Congress will never again terminate any Native American tribe or its government and never again violate or abrogate a treaty with an Indian nation without making full compensation and correcting all resulting harm to the Indian nation. Congress must examine and change all federal laws, regulations, and courtmade law that deprive Indian nations and tribes of constitutional rights. Congress must pass legislation to assure that the government accounts fully for the Indian money and property it holds.

Across the artificially imposed borders of this hemisphere, indigenous communities came together in April to demand that the Obama administration take on an American Declaration of indigenous people’s rights:

A strong American Declaration is much needed to recognize and secure indigenous rights, including the right of self-determination, treaty rights, rights to education, cultural and religious rights, rights to lands and resources, and more. It will address the particular regional issues in the Americas that are not dealt with in the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples…. It will help stop and guard against human rights violations occurring in the Americas.

But qualms with the limited scope of the congressional apology can’t be reduced to legalisms. To couch the need for resolution within a governance system imposed by colonizers would be to ignore concepts of justice that indigenous communities have struggled to preserve. Earlier this year, a statement in the Lakota Country Times spoke to a different idea of moral and territorial integrity in rejecting a potential monetary settlement over stolen Sioux Black Hills lands:

To accept this money goes against what our ancestors have fought and died for. Congress can provide a remedy including a return of lands owned by the federal government. Accepting the monetary award for the Black Hills will forever extinguish the claim of the Sioux Nation to the return of any land in the Black Hills. The [Rosebud Sioux Tribe] will never support accepting the Black Hills settlement funds.

Materialist efforts to mend fences only underscore the cultural gulf between native values and federal priorities. There is obviously a vital place for legal justice in the ongoing saga of America’s native peoples. But drafting a true “resolution” would require stirring the societal conscience in ways that the law and economics do not contemplate. In the narrative of America’s multifarious heritage, the symbolism of October 12, Washington’s apology, and the slow-burning outrage across Indian country show that the ink bled onto this page of history will never dry. Image: Dakota-Lakota-Nakota Human Rights Advocacy Coalition