2008 Presidential Election, Race and Racism
Professor Vernellia Randall
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Next President Could Lift Hopes With Indian Apology


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Much like an abusive spouse wanting forgiveness for years of abuse, the U.S. Senate has taken up consideration of a formal apology to Native people for their deplorable treatment at the hands of the federal government.

But like the abusive spouse — whose words are so often hollow and lacking the necessary action needed to ensure real change — the apology the U.S. Senate is considering carries no weight, no real promise of reform.

Only more rhetoric.

The Indian apology is part of a Senate resolution introduced by Sen. Sam Brownback, R-Kan., and is attached as an amendment to the Indian Health Care Improvement Act. The Senate is expected to take up debate on the act again Monday.

Without binding reform measures or the weight of a sitting president behind it, the apology not only lacks substance but also the chorus of support needed to truly make it the first step toward healing between Native people and the U.S. government.

But what if a sitting president were to support such an apology?

It's not likely President Bush, who opposes passage of the Indian Health Care Improvement Act and recently proposed slashing funding to many Indian social programs in his annual budget, would ever support anything resembling a concession to Native people.

Of course Bush won't be inhabiting the White House much longer.

So what of the next president?

Only three viable presidential candidates remain in the race. All of them — Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), Sen. Barack Obama (D-Ill.) and Sen. Hillary Clinton (D-N.Y.) — have voiced support for Native issues during their time in the Senate.

And while it's safe to assume the eventual Democratic nominee would support an apology to Native people, what about the Republican nominee? Certainly the relationship between conservatives and Native people has been a tempestuous one.

That said, McCain could be the first Republican president in a long time to take steps to correct that dysfunctional relationship.

In a May 2005 interview with the Associated Press, McCain said he supported a resolution the Senate was considering at that time that also would have issued a formal apology to Indians.

"Reviewing the history of this government's treatment of Native peoples makes painfully obvious that the government has repeatedly broken its promises and caused great harm to the nation's original inhabitants," McCain told the AP back then.

With the presumptive Republican presidential nominee having expressed support for an Indian apology in recent years, the chances the next president would support such an apology seem increasingly likely.

The idea of a president standing before the entire world and acknowledging this country's mistreatment of its first inhabitants is inspiring.

If that were to happen, it would change this hollow apology now being considered into something more. Something likely to elicit hope within even the most cynical of us.

And while it still would ring hollow without immediate action toward real reform, it could light a fire.

And that fire could, finally, give form and substance to this promise of change.

Kevin Abourezk, Oglala Lakota, is a reporter and editor at the Lincoln (Neb.) Journal Star. He is a reznet assignment editor and teaches reporting at the Freedom Forum's American Indian Journalism Institute.


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