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State apology could spur federal action

Colorado apologizes for historical injustices

WASHINGTON - Some Indian and national leaders are predicting that a recent Colorado Legislature resolution that apologized for and remembered the deaths of millions of American Indians after colonization will strengthen efforts for similar action on the federal level.

The nonbinding state measure passed 22 - 12 in the Senate and 59 - 4 in the House in late-April. It states that Europeans in some cases intentionally caused many American Indian deaths and that early American settlers often treated Indians with ;'cruelty and inhumanity.'' It also recognizes that ''American Indians have made many sacrifices in the history of this great nation.''

Former Republican Colorado Sen. Ben Nighthorse Campbell, a leader with the Northern Cheyenne Indian Tribe, believes the resolution could lead to similar movement on the national level.

''A lot of times, the federal government responds to state legislatures taking the lead on important issues,'' said Campbell, who now serves as a senior policy adviser with the Holland & Knight law firm in Washington.

There's already been some progress on the national level, but the deal has yet to be sealed. Sen. Sam Brownback, R-Kan., shepherded through an amendment to the Senate's reauthorization of the Indian Health Care Improvement Act in February, which called for a national apology to American Indians. It stated in part that ''officials of the federal government and private United States citizens harmed Native peoples by the unlawful acquisition of recognized tribal land and the theft of tribal resources and assets from recognized tribal land.''

In order to become law, similar legislation on the House side of Congress must also make headway - a prospect that is waning, if something doesn't move before the congressional summer recess. Despite the lack of House progress, Campbell predicted that a renewed emphasis could soon materialize based on the efforts of Rep. Dale Kildee, D-Mich., who heads the House's Native American Caucus.

One sticking point to getting a national apology passed is the issue of monetary restitution. Some legislators have expressed concern that a Congress-sanctioned apology could create a precedent for lawsuits.

''I think the United States government would make an apology if there wasn't that fear of being sued,'' said Leonard Wabasha, a hereditary chief of the Dakota who is working on reconciliation efforts in Minnesota. ''It's that whole reparations thing that scares them off. I think if they were allowed to just say sorry - that, 'Hey, we committed genocide' - that might be enough. If it is not enough, it would at least be a huge step in the right direction.''

The Brownback legislation did not authorize or support any claims or settlements from Indians or tribes against the United States.

Campbell believes that any formal federal apology should not incorporate the words ''holocaust'' or ''genocide,'' since he feels the processes of colonization were complex and that purposeful extermination of Indians wasn't always the intent of early colonists. He also notes that it's easy to blame everything on Europeans, ''but the fact is that some of the bad things that were happening were here long before they got here.''

The former senator also does not see the issue as boiling down to a partisan battle, especially since its chief ally is a Republican, and Democratic legislators are largely seen as being open to the idea of a national apology.

The Colorado resolution specifically mentions the forced removal of the Cherokee Nation in 1838 and the Sand Creek Massacre of between 150 and 200 Indian people - composed of mostly elderly men, women and children - by members of the Colorado Territory militia in 1864. It also notes the many Indian deaths due to disease that were magnified by European conquest.

''Many people of European descent are unaware of the catastrophe that indigenous peoples of America endured as a result of the arrival of Europeans on the North American landmass,'' according to one section of the bill.

''A common element in genocide is the creation of a myth that the victims are in some way not part of the human family,'' according to the resolution, ''and this element was present in the European treatment of the American Indians as well.''

Some lawmakers, including Senate Minority Leader Andy McElhany, R-Colorado Springs, argued that the measure unfairly condemns all Europeans for injustices against Indians. But supporters said the resolution wasn't meant to blame all Europeans - just to recognize the historical facts of U.S. colonization.

Rep. Debbie Stafford, D-Aurora, said she is especially excited that the Colorado resolution could help refocus national lawmakers' attention on the issue. The Lakota Sioux legislator co-sponsored the state's apology legislation, and she is in the process of contacting national lawmakers to lend advice, if it is needed. She said that partisan issues were not an overwhelming challenge in her state's case.

''I believe we have done an injustice in our country, and we must honor the pain and loss and suffering that have been experienced by Native Americans. I really believe that it would be worth pushing forward at the federal level.''

Stafford said, too, that if the federal government were to pass such a measure, other state legislators would be encouraged to create their own resolutions.

''I do believe that the message needs to come from the federal level, as well as at the state level, because we have Native Americans all across this land who have suffered injustices.''