When President Barack Obama bounded into the White House, he brought with him the goodwill of tribal leaders who vouched for him, as well as the adoration of tribal citizens who voted for him. And he was freshly anointed with the adopted name Barack Black Eagle, granted by citizens of the Crow Nation in May 2008. Given these gestures of support, many Natives thought it would reasonable to expect an apology from this unique president—not for any sins he had committed, but to make amends for the Indian-related injustices of America’s past. But as his presidency has progressed—especially as the now-infamous Geronimo/Osama bin Laden code name controversy played out—it has become increasingly clear that a mea culpa from Obama to Indians isn’t coming.
The hope that this “other” politician—born to an African father; raised in Hawaii, the state still most closely connected to its Native roots; a former community organizer for poor people—would identify with Indians was intense. “Obama is much more like us than any other president America has ever considered electing,” Frank LaMere, former chairman of the Native American Caucus of the Democratic National Committee, said in summer 2008, noting that the then-senator from Illinois was of mixed race, as are most Natives nowadays; he came from a complicated familial background—a commonality shared by many Indians; and he seemed opened to addressing the plight of Americans who didn’t look or act like the mainstream—an excellent starting point for building a strong relationship based on a common understanding. “We can expect great things from him.”
For some, the expectation was that Obama would take a moment early on to recognize the injustices of America’s history, especially those involving Indians and tribes. From the Trail of Tears to the horrors of boarding school assimilation to the Department of the Interior’s mismanagement of Indian trust money, there was much to acknowledge. The best way to do so, they felt, would be for him to issue an apology early in his presidency, then move on to create tribal initiatives and help pass positive Indian-focused legislation. Obama could have ushered in a new era of tribal-federal relations.
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The fact that the leaders of other nations had been making amends in recent years to their respective indigenous populations raised hopes for an Obama apology. In June 2008, Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper gave a well-received speech to parliament and tribal leaders, apologizing to survivors of the country’s residential boarding school system. Before that, then-Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd apologized in parliament to all aboriginals for laws and policies that “inflicted profound grief, suffering and loss.” Past U.S. presidents have also offered apologies to harmed groups. In 1997, President Bill Clinton said during a well-publicized White House ceremony that the government was sorry for its role in the Tuskegee syphilis experiment on African Americans. President Ronald Reagan, meanwhile, made a formal statement when he signed the Japanese internment apology law in 1988, which carried with it financial restitution.
Obama’s first year in office had many promising signs. He immediately hired Native Americans for positions within his administration; he supported passage of the Indian Health Care Improvement Act and other pro-Indian legislation; and, most important, he extended an invitation to all federally recognized tribal leaders to meet with him and top agency heads. Still, a question lingered, especially in the minds of Indians who for so long have been misjudged, and worse, forgotten, in American society: Does he really get us?
For all these positive moves, the lack of a verbal apology—or even a willingness to talk about one—ended up being one of the most confounding developments of 2009 for some Indians, especially when they found out that in December of that year that Obama signed off on a congressional apology resolution to Natives that had been bouncing around during the Bush administration. But he did so as part of a larger piece of legislation—the war-minded 2010 Defense Appropriations Act—and he did not draw a single shred of attention to his action.
The resolution, Public Law 111-118, Section 8113, states that “the United States, acting through Congress, recognizes that there have been years of official depredations, ill-conceived policies, and the breaking of covenants by the Federal Government regarding Indian tribes,” and it “apologizes on behalf of the people of the United States to all Native Peoples for the many instances of violence, maltreatment, and neglect inflicted on Native Peoples by the citizens of the United States.” Notably, it also “urges the president to acknowledge the wrongs of the United States against Indian tribes in the history of the United States in order to bring healing to this land.”
But Obama did not heed that last clause. There was no ceremony of acknowledgement; no tribal leaders were called, as might be done for a foreign dignitary in a similar circumstance. White House officials seemed to not want to highlight Obama’s signature—they never issued a press release regarding the apology, and when asked why, they said only that the president supported Indians, as evidenced through his actions.
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This suggests that Obama had signed something that he (or his staff?) was not entirely comfortable with. But why? Sam Brownback, former Republican senator and current governor of Kansas, speculated that the White House might consider such an apology by this president to be politically risky: Would such an action usher in a call for reparations from Indians, or other groups? Brownback said the issue should not be muddied by politics. He is a Republican, after all, and he had been shepherding a congressional apology resolution for a decade with little political consequence—in fact, if the president needed it, Brownback would have offered him political cover. Another reason for Obama’s reluctance is likely the cadre of conservative media commentators who pounce on anything the president does or says that they can spin as proof he is un-American. Some Natives counter, however, that Obama shouldn’t succumb to such concerns, because an apology would be the right thing to do. And more so than many politicians, he has made a point of saying that he believes in doing the right thing, above doing what is politically expedient.
Despite the lack of attention from the White House, Brownback, like many Natives, continued to feel that a verbal apology from the president would serve as a crucial basis for understanding from both tribal and federal perspectives. “What this amendment achieves is recognition, honor, and the importance of Native Americans to this land and to the United States in the past and today and offers an official apology for the poor and painful path the U.S. government sometimes made in relation to our Native brothers and sisters by disregarding our solemn word to Native peoples,” he explained in offering the legislation. “It recognizes the negative impact of numerous destructive federal acts and policies on Native Americans and their culture, and it begins—begins—the effort of reconciliation.” Brownback also took part in a ceremony in Washington of congressional members in which he read the apology out loud to tribal leaders who had been invited. The president was invited, but did not attend.
Obama’s second summit with tribal leaders was at the end of 2010—another significant gesture, and an unprecedented one for a sitting president: two large-scale White House summits with Indian leaders! Perhaps this was the big moment he had been waiting for to trot out an apology?
No such luck. In fact, the president made it clear in his address to tribal leaders at the summit that he didn’t think the actual
words needed to be said out loud. “[Last] year, I signed a resolution, passed by both parties in Congress, finally recognizing the sad and painful chapters in our shared history—a history too often marred by broken promises and grave injustices against the First Americans. It’s a resolution I fully supported—recognizing that no statement can undo the damage that was done; what it can do is help reaffirm the principles that should guide our future. It’s only by heeding the lessons of our history that we can move forward.”
The president’s message was clear—“no statement can undo the damage.” He was also saying that his actions spoke louder than words—and many of his actions have been good for Natives. The takeaway was that he would sign a congressional apology to Indians as part of unrelated legislation, but he would not make a verbal apology.
An immediate problem, though, with the president’s rationalization was that he himself had made “word matters,” a theme during his run for president. “Don’t tell me words don’t matter,” Obama said in a speech during the heat of his campaign against Hillary Clinton in February 2008. “?‘I have a dream’—just words? ‘We hold these truths to be self evident that all men are created equal’—just words? ‘We have nothing to fear but fear itself’—just words? Just speeches? It’s true that speeches don’t solve all problems, but what is also true is that if we can’t inspire our country to believe again, then it doesn’t matter how many policies and plans we have.… ”
And words do matter to many Indians who need some inspiration—and that an actual apology needs to be delivered by the president. “What kind of an apology is it when they don’t tell the people they are apologizing to?” asked Robert T. Coulter, executive director of the Indian Law Resource Center, when told of the president’s unpublicized signature of the apology resolution in 2009. “For an apology to have any meaning at all, you do have to tell the people you’re apologizing to.” After Obama’s December 16, 2010 statement to the tribal leaders, members of the Great Plains Tribal Chairman’s Association tried to make the best of the situation, putting out a statement supporting the fact that Obama had brought up the apology resolution, but it was clear they longed for more: “As American Indian people, we believe that the apology to Native peoples by the United States is long overdue. The true history must be taught in American schools, so that today there can be real respect by the United States for Native nations and Native peoples.” Members of the group continue to push for Obama to make an apology.
Fast-forward to the Geronimo debacle in which the American public learned soon after the killing of Osama bin Laden by American Navy SEALs on May 1 that military officials involved in the raid had described bin Laden with the code name “Geronimo”—apparently not realizing, or not caring, that associating a ruthless terrorist with an Indian hero was offensive. Later, some in the government tried to say that the code name referred to the mission, not to the man, but many Indians were skeptical and pointed out the association was wrong in any context.
As the controversy played out, White House press officials referred all inquiries to the Department of Defense. Even when questioned on Obama’s personal feelings about the code name, officials directed inquiries to Defense. Agency officials there, meanwhile, said they do not comment on code names.
Such obfuscation is familiar to Indians accustomed to federal government trickery since the beginning of contact. Still, some kept the pressure on the White House, saying forcefully that the leader of the military, Obama, should apologize because the negative Geronimo association was made under his command. Fort Sill Apache Tribal Chairman Jeff Houser sent a letter dated May 3 to Obama, explaining the pain felt by many Natives as a result of the slight. “Our tribal and most Native Americans would hope that you would issue a formal apology to the Geronimo family members, the Fort Sill Apache Tribe, and to all Native Americans for this action. Right now Native American children all over this country are facing the reality of having one of their most revered figures being connected to a terrorist and a murderer of thousands of innocent Americans. Think about how they feel at this point.
“We all remember that you were elected on a message of compassion and change,” Houser continued. “This action by your administration showed neither compassion toward Native Americans, nor a change in the perception of us, or an understanding of our struggle. Please do not allow this injustice against one of our greatest figures to stand. Only you, Mr. President, can take steps to right this wrong.”
The White House did not respond to Houser’s letter, nor to calls from many other Native leaders for a mea culpa. As had already happened with the congressional apology resolution, it soon became clear that Obama would not apologize, nor did he seem to understand that there was even a controversy boiling in Indian country. In an appearance on May 8 on 60 Minutes, none of this seemed to trouble him. “There was a point before folks had left before we had gotten everybody back on the helicopter and were flying back to base, where they said ‘Geronimo’ has been killed,” Obama told journalist Steve Kroft with a look of pride in his eyes. “And Geronimo was the code name for bin Laden.”
The look, meanwhile, in the eyes of many Indians was quite different.