With the leaders of five tribes in attendance, Sen. Sam Brownback of Kansas read a congressional resolution Wednesday apologizing for “ill-conceived policies” and acts of violence against American Indians by the U.S. government.
Brownback spoke during an event at the Congressional Cemetery in Washington, D.C., where he and Reps. Jim McDermott of Washington, Lois Capps of California and Mazie Hirono of Hawaii joined representatives from the Cherokee, Choctaw, Muscogee (Creek), Sisseton Wahpeton Oyate and Pawnee nations, Cherokee Nation Chief Chad Smith said.
All those tribes are based in Oklahoma, except for the Sisseton Wahpeton Oyate, which is based in South Dakota.
Smith said that while most tribes had not specifically asked for a formal apology from the U.S. government, the gesture was appreciated.
“It’s difficult to issue an apology and sometimes it’s difficult to accept one,” Smith said by phone from Washington. “Once you put those differences of the past aside, perhaps the next step is, can you do any better in this round? That’s where our greatest challenge is. The history of the U.S. (toward American Indians) is not a bright record. The real question is, what happens from this day forward?”
Brownback, a Republican, had pushed for the resolution since 2004. Both houses of Congress approved it late last year and President Barack Obama signed it in December. Lawmakers have described the resolution as a symbolic gesture that would help promote a renewed commitment by the federal government to the tribes.
Brownback has said the resolution was not meant to authorize or support any claim against the U.S. government or serve as a settlement of any claim. His office did not immediately return messages Wednesday seeking comment.
In the text, the resolution “acknowledges years of official depredations, ill-conceived policies and the breaking of covenants” by the U.S. government toward tribes and “apologizes on behalf of the people of the United States to all Native Peoples for many instances of violence, maltreatment and neglect inflicted on” American Indians by U.S. citizens.
Creek Nation Second Chief Alfred Berryhill called the apology “a historical step” in the relationship between the U.S. government and the tribes, which he said “maintain ourselves as sovereign” nations.
“We feel as if this took effort on the part of the U.S. government,” Berryhill said. “We do appreciate the effort of the Congress. I know it’s hard for our nation to apologize to anybody.”
The site of the ceremony, Congressional Cemetery, is the burial site for 36 tribal representatives from 12 American Indian nations who died in the region while representing their people, according to the Faith and Politics Institute, a group that helped present Wednesday’s event. Among them are William Shorey Coodey, the author of the Cherokee Nation constitution, who died in 1849, and former Choctaw Nation Chief Pushmataha, who died in 1824.