When Columbus got lost in America, he found healthy, thriving native peoples. Within 100 years, the civilizations he first met were decimated. In North America, north of Mexico, the pre-Columbian population has been estimated at 18 million people. By the time of the Wounded Knee Massacre in 1890, there were barely 250,000 Native Americans left alive.
The United States Constitution recognizes our Native Nations as sovereigns, and our Native peoples as self-governing. In 1825, the Mandan, Hidatsa, and Arikara Tribes first signed Treaties with United States promising protection and creating a trust relationship. In 1851 our leaders traveled 800 miles and joined with 10,000 other Indian leaders at Fort Laramie to take part in the largest treaty council ever held. The 1851 Treaty recognized the right to peace and protection in our homelands. In 1866 our tribes negotiated further promises of farming, ranching and engineering assistance, education, health care, along with a promise that “perpetual peace, friendship, and amity shall hereafter exist” between the United States and our Tribes. But our lands, which encompassed 12 million acres in the 1851 Treaty, were reduced to eight million acres by President Grant’s 1870 Executive Order, and to under one million acres by President Hayes in 1880.
Then in 1947, the Army Corps of Engineers began construction on the Missouri of the Fort Garrison Dam, submerging a quarter of our remaining lands, destroying our capital and our best farming lands, devastating our economy, forcing 80 percent of our families to relocate and dividing our people into five water-blocked segments.
Our story is not at all unique. Throughout this Nation’s history, the First Peoples have suffered relentless military campaigns against our people, the theft of our lands, generations of poverty and deprivation—all in violation of our treaties with the United States.
Recently, Senator Sam Brownback—now Governor of Kansas—worked with Senator Daniel Inouye and with the support of Indian Country to pass the Apology to Native Peoples Resolution. In 2009, they finally succeeded when the Apology was included in 2010 the Department of Defense Appropriations bill. That was somehow appropriate, given how much violence, suffering and injustice the military inflicted upon our people. The Apology reads:
“The United States, acting through Congress … apologizes on behalf of the people of the United States for the many instances of violence, maltreatment and neglect inflicted on Native Peoples by citizens of the United States [and] expresses its regret….”
Senator Inouye addressed the Senate with these words:
“In our early days as a nation, we entered into treaties with Native Americans pursuant to the … Constitution that recognizes them as sovereigns. But later we abandoned the path of honorable dealings, and turned to war. Thousands lost their lives through these battles and horrific massacres. The native population everywhere was decimated.”
Importantly, Congress urged the President to “acknowledge the wrongs of the United States against Indian tribes … in order to bring healing to this land.”
In December 2009, Senators Brownback, Inouye, Dorgan, Akaka, Harkin, Baucus, and Tester wrote to President Obama requesting that he host a White House Ceremony announcing the Apology to Native Peoples on behalf of the United States. Unfortunately, he has not done so, and that’s why many of you have not heard of this Apology.
It is time to officially announce the United States’ apology and give it real meaning.
Mr. President, Indian County asks, if not now, when? If not you, who? JFK stopped the Termination Policy. LBJ signed the Indian Civil Rights Law. President Nixon gave us the Indian Self-Determination Act and President Carter signed the American Indian Religious Freedom Act into law. President Reagan announced the Federal-tribal government-to-government policy and President Clinton met with tribal leaders on the White House lawn and went to visit the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation himself.
Mr. President, please join the ranks of these great Presidents—our Indian nations urge you to publicly proclaim the Apology to Native Peoples that Congress called upon you to proclaim. Please make the proclamation at a White House Ceremony so that our Native Peoples will hear it and the American Public will finally acknowledge it.
While some may say, “Let’s forget the past,” the truth is that only through remembrance can our nation’s conscience heal, and only though amends can we truly move forward in strength, hope and justice.
Tex G. Hall is the Chairman of the Mandan, Hidatsa & Arikara Nation and Chairman of the Great Plains Tribal Chairmen’s Association.