Robert Coulter: 'No thanks' to U.S. apology
The Senate has just passed a resolution that apologizes to American Indians and
other Native Americans for the wrongs done by citizens of this country. But a genuine
apology means you won’t do it again, and this resolution does nothing at all to stop or
correct the on-going wrongs that the federal government inflicts on Indian and Alaska
Native nations. Unfortunately our government still takes Indian land without paying for it,
still refuses to account for the Indian money it holds, still violates its treaties with Indian
nations without making amends, and still maintains a body of policy and law that is so
discriminatory and racist that it should have been discarded generations ago.
To make a real apology, Congress needs to stop doing the things that it is
apologizing to Indian nations and other Native peoples for. Americans generally do not
know that the federal government continues to treat tribes and Alaska Native nations this
way, and the evidence is that the public does not support or condone this mistreatment.
It is astonishing to most Americans that the federal government is still taking
Indian land and resources – without due process of law and without fair market
compensation, sometimes with no compensation at all. Of course, the Constitution says
that Congress may not take anyone’s property except with due process of law and with fair
market compensation. But these rules are not applied to most land and resources owned by
Indian tribes, and the government takes the land and resources at will. Obviously, this is
Today, the government is trying to drive Western Shoshone Indians off their
homelands in Nevada without a semblance of due process and with a payment of about 15
cents per acre. This is gold mining land, but that doesn’t make it alright to take it from its
Indian owners. There are other present day cases. A few years ago, Congress confiscated
part of the reservation that was shared by the Yurok Nation in California and turned it over
to another tribe. Congress gloated at the time that it could do this without paying
compensation because of Congress’ so-called “Plenary Power” over Indians and their
A few years ago, Congress passed a law that orders a fund of money belonging to
nine Western Shoshone tribes to be taken from the tribes and handed out by the Interior
Department to some but not all individual tribal members. The bill was passed over the
objections of most of the tribes.
The Interior Department still will not fully account for Indian funds that it holds.
This national shame is reported regularly in the press. The Department is defying the law,
as it has done for generations. The United States still insists that Indian tribes and in some respects Indian individuals, are in a state of permanent, involuntary trusteeship, with the
federal government as trustee. No one else in the US is subject to such unaccountable
Congress today insists it can put Indian nations and tribes out of existence at any
time. Indian nations and tribes still have no real right to exist in US law. The threat of
termination is very real. Some small Native tribes in Alaska have recently heard this threat
from congressional sources.
Congress also insists that it may freely violate treaties made with Indian nations.
Sadly this is not a thing of the past. It does this today – regularly. Treaties are contracts,
and the government cannot freely violate its contracts with others, but it does so – often –
in the case of Indian treaties.
The Inter-American Commission on Human Rights of the Organization of
American States, an international legal body that is officially recognized and supported by
the United States, recently concluded that US policies regarding Indian lands are
discriminatory and constitute a violation of human rights. But the Bush Administration
defied the Commission and the present Administration is still refusing to change the
discriminatory laws it applies to Indian tribes.
This on-going pattern of lawless and arbitrary congressional power over Indians
has resulted in a negative, risky, unpredictable business climate on Indian reservations that
inhibits needed economic development.
To be clear, many of the things Congress is considering apologizing for are still
being done to Indian and Alaska Native tribes and to Native Hawaiians as well. Sadly, the
United States, especially the US Congress, has never given up its insistence on treating
Indian and Alaska Native nations with injustice and discrimination. This is not only wrong
but very bad public policy and wholly out of keeping with American values.
Congress should conduct hearings and adopt a resolution promising never again to
take Indian or tribal property without due process of law and fair market compensation.
The resolution should promise that Congress will never again terminate any Native
American tribe or its government and never again violate or abrogate a treaty with an
Indian nation without making full compensation and correcting all resulting harm to the
Indian nation. Congress must examine and change all federal laws, regulations, and courtmade
law that deprive Indian nations and tribes of constitutional rights. Congress must
pass legislation to assure that the government accounts fully for the Indian money and
property it holds.
Without such commitments from Congress, an apology will be just another offense
against Native Americans. Until the government changes its ways, things cannot be
expected to improve much in Indian country. This is a good time to make the changes.
Robert Coulter, a member of the Citizen Potawatomi Nation, is the executive director of the Indian Law Resource Center.
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