WASHINGTON - On the occasion of the 175th anniversary of the BIA, assistant secretary Kevin Gover surprised the audience and apologized for the past treatment of American Indians by the agency.
In an emotion filled speech, Gover said it was no time for celebration, but for reflection and change. As he cited government atrocities against Indian people and expressed his sorrow and anger for the bureau's legacy, a packed audience of BIA employees and tribal leaders responded with a cheerful, standing ovation when the teary-eyed Gover concluded his remarks.
"We must first reconcile ourselves to the fact that the works of this agency have at various times profoundly harmed the communities it was meant to serve," Gover said.
"These things occurred despite the efforts of many good people with good hearts who sought to prevent them. These wrongs must be acknowledged if the healing is to begin."
His heartfelt, impassioned and genuine comments captured the attention of everyone in the room. He took the audience on a historical journey beginning with the days when the BIA was part of the Department of War and a time when many tribes were relocated, decimated and wiped from the earth in the name of the United States. It was not too long ago when assimilation and ethnic cleansing were official policy and all things Indian were to be destroyed.
"We cannot yet ask your forgiveness, not while the burdens of this agency's history weigh so heavily on tribal communities," Gover said. "What we do ask is that, together, we allow the healing to begin. As you return to your homes, and as you talk with your people, please tell them that the time of dying is at its end.
"And so, the first mission of this institution was to execute the removal of the southeastern tribal nations. By threat, deceit and force, these great tribal nations were made to march a thousand miles to the west, leaving thousands of their old, their young and their infirm in hasty graves along the Trail of Tears."
Gover said he apologized on behalf of the BIA, not the federal government. He said it was not his place to speak for those who held elected office, yet, as an assistant secretary he became the highest ranking officer to ever broach the subject of treatment to the American Indian population. The written text of his comments were sent to the White House before the gathering. Lynn Cutler, chief advisor to President Clinton on Indian affairs, said there was no objection to the speech.
"I thought it was a very heroic and historic moment. For us, there was a lot of emotion in that apology. It's important for us to begin to heal from what has been done since non-Indian contact," said Sue Masten, chairwoman of the Yurok Nation and president of the National Congress of American Indians.
While many were moved by Gover's words, some thought he should have gone a little further in his apology. Ron Allen, chairman of the Jamestown S'klallam Tribe, says Gover should have apologized for what is going on with tribes today.
"I think his comments were sincere and well delivered," Allen said. "But I'm concerned that he didn't apologize for what the current administration has done. This administration has positioned itself in many ways that counter tribal self-determination. Kevin has brought a lot of talent to the job, but he has also been a bit of a disappointment.
Lloyd Tortalita, governor of the Acoma Pueblo, praised Gover's comments but added the caveat, "If we could get an apology from the whole government, that would be better."
In 1775, the Continental Congress created a Committee on Indian Affairs which was headed by Benjamin Franklin. Fifty years later, in 1824, the BIA was established under the War Department where it was an agency intent on the subjugation of Indian tribes and Indian people. In 1849, the bureau was moved to the Department of Interior where it remains today.
Tribes across the United States relied on the BIA to fulfill the federal government's treaty and trust obligations. However, as Gover pointed out in his speech, the bureau has not always complied with its mandate.
A reflection of the magnitude of the BIA's continuing problems can be found in the amount of attention it receives in the press with the issue of trust funds management, since that management is a key component of its stated mission. However, the BIA has grown from an overt agency of war against Indian people to an agency whose mission it is to serve and uplift tribal governments and Indian people.
Since 1977, when the assistant secretary for Indian affairs position was created, there have been six men and one woman, all American Indian, who served, including Kevin Gover. During the past 30 years the BIA has come to have the largest number of American Indian and Alaska Native people on staff than at any other time in the agency's history, about 90 percent of its more than 10,000 employees.
Gover's words were followed by songs of healing from relatives in the Pawnee tribe. Gover says that struggles of the past should be remembered always to provide a foundation for a new day and guidance for a better future.
"While the BIA employees of today did not commit these wrongs, we acknowledge that the institution we serve did," Gover said. "We accept this inheritance, this legacy of racism and inhumanity. And, by accepting this legacy, we accept also the moral responsibility of putting things right.
"Never again will we allow policy to proceed from the assumption that Indians possess less human genius than the other races.
"Never again will we appoint false leaders who serve purposes other than those of the tribes. Never again will we attack your religions, your languages, your rituals or any of your tribal ways. Never again will we seize your children nor teach them to be ashamed of who they are. Never again.
"Tell your young men and women to replace their anger with hope and love for their people. Together, we must wipe the tears of seven generations."