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Congress Contemplates an Apology, but only President Bush can give it Meaning

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An apology to American Indians - sans any actual reparation language - is
making the rounds of Congress (S.J.RES.37). The brainchild of retiring
Colorado Senator, Northern Cheyenne Chief Ben Nighthorse Campbell, the
apology and any pertinent language of at least forgiveness and
reconciliation is always welcome. All such language that recognizes some
measure of the destruction caused to American Indians by the forceful
western expansion of the United States is in some way useful to Native
nations.

The resolution reads well and we welcome it. For one, it recognizes
directly that, "officials of the United States Government and private
United States citizens harmed Native Peoples by the unlawful acquisition of
recognized tribal land, the theft of resources from such territories, and
the mismanagement of tribal trust funds;

This is to the good. The apology continues:

"... the policies of the United States Government toward Indian tribes and
the breaking of covenants with Indian tribes have contributed to the severe
social ills and economic troubles in many Native communities today ..."

Also to the good. Now for a strong, unifying note: "... despite continuing
maltreatment of Native Peoples by the United States, the Native Peoples
have remained committed to the protection of this great land, as evidenced
by the fact that, on a per capita basis, more Native people have served in
the United States Armed Forces and placed themselves in harm's way in
defense of the United States in every major military conflict than any
other ethnic group ...

"... Indian tribes have actively influenced the public life of the United
States by continued cooperation with Congress and the Department of the
Interior, through the involvement of Native individuals in official United
States Government positions, and by leadership of their own sovereign
Indian tribes ..."

We gladly note that, "unlawful acquisition of recognized tribal land, the
theft of resources from such territories" is seen to be a bad thing in this
apology. We note too that via the apology, the Congress would, "acknowledge
a long history of official depredations and ill-conceived policies by the
United States Government regarding Indian tribes and offer an apology to
all Native Peoples on behalf of the United States." Such as apologies go,
again, all to the good.

However, in our distinct reality, as always, the irony runs deep. During
the same week the U.S. Congress pondered on its apology to Indian tribes,
the same legislative body unanimously approved the largest Indian
land-swindle in recent history when the so-called Western Shoshone payout
bill cleared Congress. The controversial bill will extinguish Western
Shoshone title to their Aboriginal territories by distributing more than
$145 million to members of the Western Shoshone Nation. The measure, which
was pushed by Sen. Harry Reid, D-Nev., who sits on the Senate Indian
Affairs Committee, passed the Senate by unanimous consent. The bill now
goes to President Bush for his signature, or veto.

Everyone knows the Western Shoshone never relinquished title to these
treaty-reserved Indian lands, known now to be rich in minerals as well. By
dint of "encroachment" according to the U.S. Supreme Court, the Western
Shoshone lost these lands - whatever that means. Now a conglomeration of
corporations stand to carve out fortunes from the coming privatization that
is promised to follow the clearance of Indian tide.

Unfortunately, the Shoshone leadership left its public struggle largely to
two tough elder women ranchers, the Dann sisters, to stand up for their
ancestral rights. Sagebrush and range land for horses, the Nevada prairie
may be, but it also is the repository of billions of dollars in ores,
including gold - enough mineral wealth to truly endow seven generations of
tribal people now enrolled in the various Western Shoshone bands.

As go the Shoshone, so might go other tribal claims to ancestral lands.
Other tribes fear the Shoshone bill will set a precedent for Congressional
termination of land claims. In a similar case, the Lakota Nation has been
refusing an allocation for the Black Hills in South Dakota for several
generations. Many tribes have land claims pending.

The National Congress of American Indians (NCAI) is soundly against such a
congressionally imposed award. It passed an emergency resolution stating
that "Congress should not impose a claims distribution on an Indian tribe
that has not consented to the settlement of its land claims." Tribal
leaders across Indian country see the process for what it is, a massive
resource rip-off that circumvented the valued and often stated
government-to-government relationship. Sen. Reid's game plan included a
bogus survey sent to individual tribal members by a tribal leader no longer
in power.

If President Bush signs the shameful legislation, his administration will
oversee the most glaring example of dispossession of Indian lands and
resources in over a century. The money pay out, on a per capita basis,
might award some $30,000 each to some 6,000 Western Shoshone tribal members
(based on a buy-out of only 15 cents per acre on average). The rest of the
money, about $1.5 million, would be used for educational programs. This
measly one-time pay-out offered by Senator Reid for lands that will last
forever only adds insult to injury. For the birthright of their
generations, Western Shoshone are to receive a one-time payment of $30,000
per member - not nearly enough for a viable future.

Western Shoshone tribes are mostly based in Nevada, with Shoshone tribes as
well in Utah, California and Idaho. They will all be diminished by the
congressional sell-out of their property and lands. Seven of nine elected
councils specifically oppose the Reid settlement, imposed by the assumed
power of Congress to do what it may with Indians.

One also has to wonder if President Bush is not being set up for infamy in
Indian country by a powerful Democratic Senator. It would be a vast
departure from conservative philosophy and Republican presidential practice
for President Bush to sign a bill that would purport to strip American
Indians of access to their lands and resources. Presidents Nixon and Ford
are highly credentialed for their roles in the development and signing of
the Indian Self Determination and Education Assistance Act of 1975.
President Nixon also returned sacred Blue Lake lands to Taos Pueblo and is
credited with a host of other achievements that benefited American Indians.
President Reagan signed the Indian Gaming Regulatory Act in 1988 that
activated the most dramatic gains in American Indian self-reliance and
economic development in history. And even the president's father President
H.W. Bush signed the historic National Museum of the American Indian Act in
1989 and the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act in
1990. What will be the legacy of President George W. Bush?

While expectedly Democrats should have opposed the legislation, they caved
in to lobbying by Sen. Harry Reid, D-Nev., and Rep. Jim Gibbons, R-Nev.
Some Western Shoshone, such as Nancy Stewart, co-chair of a
non-governmental entity called the Western Shoshone Claims Steering
Committee, signaled approval by calling the payment, "overdue" to "the
poverty stricken people in our great nation." Stewart, a member of the
Fallon Western Shoshone Tribe, made a strong case to the congressmen.

Nevertheless, the majority of Western Shoshone tribal governments reject
the settlement. They argue that the U.S. will use the settlement payments
as a basis for contending that their land rights have been extinguished. No
doubt, they will continue to press their claim.

Te-Moak Tribal Chairman Hugh Stevens predicts that now they [the U.S. government] are going to sell the gold to big mining, and then sell the
water to Las Vegas and elsewhere. In other words, Indian property is once
again stolen and sold to the highest bidder.

We agree that this is an appalling development. The signal to tribal
peoples everywhere is: your treaties, your histories, do not matter.

Goes the quote: "Great nations, like great men, keep their word."

The United States leaves justice out of the Western Shoshone equation.
Honor be damned, seems to be the policy. Is Western Shoshone land claim
termination by Congress to be the rule or the exception for Indian country?
And isn't it ironic that Congress can debate an apology to American Indians
while at the same time committing the very offense for which they wish to
apologize? A forked tongue is attached neither to principle nor honor.

Only President Bush can restore some semblance of American integrity to
this sordid affair by vetoing Sen. Reid's legislation and engaging the
Western Shoshone in negotiations that achieve a just settlement.