WASHINGTON – For the second year in a row, the Senate has voted to apologize to Native Americans for historical injustices.
The apology, known as the Native American Apology Resolution, was attached to a defense appropriations bill, which the congressional body voted on Oct. 6.
The resolution extends a formal apology from the United States to tribal governments and Native American people nationwide. It is aimed at making amends for years of “ill-conceived policies” and acts of violence against Native Americans by U.S. citizens.
It also asks President Barack Obama to “acknowledge the wrongs of the United States against Indian tribes” in order to encourage healing.
The president was asked earlier this year by grassroots groups to apologize specifically for atrocities carried out on Indians who attended boarding schools, often forcibly.
Obama has not yet said if he will take such action.
The Senate resolution does not authorize or serve as a settlement of any claim against the U.S., and it does not resolve many challenges still facing Native Americans.
Comparable legislation has been introduced in previous sessions of Congress, even passing the Senate in 2008, but no bills have been signed into law.
For the resolution to become law, the House of Representatives would also have to approve similar legislation. The president would then have to agree to sign off.
The stage has been set for the House to take action with Rep. Dan Boren, D-Okla., having already introduced a companion resolution, H.J. Res. 46.
Boren believes the impact of U.S. policies is the source of many of the social and economic disparities that tribes face today.
While backers are hopeful the House will move on Boren’s resolution, the House did not act on a similar amendment last year, even after the Senate’s approval. It also did not act on resolutions proposed in previous years.
Many tribal leaders and citizens welcome the desire of the Senate to apologize for past egregious actions, but some have expressed concern that an apology is not enough.
Jefferson Keel, vice president of the National Congress of American Indians, has said that a federal apology would be hollow until monetary reparations are addressed.
Even some senators who are traditionally supportive of Native American issues think the approved Senate resolution falls short.
In a conference call with reporters held after the bill’s passage, Sen. Tim Johnson, D-S.D., expressed his appreciation for the gesture, but said it should do more.
“The Native Americans deserve an apology, but they deserve much more than that. They deserve full funding for the treaty responsibilities that the federal government has taken on. And that includes health care, housing, education and jobs, especially.”
Sen. John Thune, R-S.D., said in a separate conference call that the resolution was important because it acknowledges “the wrongs of the past.”
But he said Native Americans need more than meaningful symbols.
“The real issue, I think, is what we are doing in terms of improving conditions on the reservations,” Thune said, voicing his support for controlling crime, improving infrastructure and creating a safe and secure environment for education, business development and better health care.
The Senate resolution was introduced by Republican Sam Brownback of Kansas and Democrat Byron Dorgan of North Dakota. Brownback has been pushing for the measure since 2004.
Both reacted positively after its passage.
“The Senate’s action today is a big step for the relationship between the federal government and Native Americans,” Brownback said.
“The resolution seeks reconciliation and offers an official apology to Native Americans for the hurtful choices the federal government made in the past. With this resolution we acknowledge previous failures and express sincere regrets.”
“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 with both sadness and regret,” said Dorgan, chairman of the Senate Committee on Indian Affairs.
“It is appropriate that we, as a nation, express that sorrow and regret with this apology resolution.”
The state of Colorado last year apologized for and remembered the deaths of millions of American Indians via legislation.
Australian and Canadian government officials have also apologized for some actions against their respective indigenous people.