More steps needed with apology to American Indian

By Robert T. Coulter

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.

More steps will be needed for Congress to finally adopt this resolution. 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 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 wrong. 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 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 property.

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 “trusteeship.”

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 OAS, 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 court-made 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 T. Coulter
Executive Director,    
Indian Law Resource Center