Apology is fine but justice is better

07/11/2004 - SEATTLE WA


I did wrong. I am sorry. I will change.

Three-word sentences that all of us have to say from time to time. We learn from our mistakes, we change our behavior and we progress on through life.

In our generation, our institutions have become apology minded, too.

The Roman Catholic Church has apologized for historical wrongs by the church toward native people, for its role in the Crusades and for
anti-Semitism. An insurance company apologized for its role in slavery, expressing "deep regret over any participation in this deplorable practice." And, universities have apologized for their role in colonization, slavery and grave robbing.

The United States has its own history of saying "sorry." There have been apologies for rounding up American citizens of Japanese descent, for overthrowing the Native Hawaiian kingdom and for continuing debates about an apology for slavery and reparations.

Congress is now considering an official apology to "all Native Peoples on behalf of the United States."

The merits of such an apology are the very chapters that make up the history of the United States. The proposed, official U.S. apology cites "broken treaties" and "bloody confrontations and massacres." It tells of official condemnation of native religions and the removal of children from their parents and families. Senate Joint Resolution 37 also records how the ancestors of "today's Native Peoples inhabited the land of the present-day United States since time immemorial and for thousands of years before the arrival of the peoples of European descent."

Argue all you want over the apology, this is where the story turns ironic. While Congress considers how sorry it is -- it also acted to steal more native land (one more time, for old time's sake).

More than 50 years ago, the Indian Claims Commission determined that Western Shoshone lands in Nevada had been taken by "gradual encroachment." In 1946, that commission awarded $27 million to the tribe -- the 1872 value of the 24 million acres and the money has been collecting interest in a bank account since 1979. A friend of mine from Nevada said at the time, "They called it encroachment. We called it stealing."

Last week the act became official. President Bush signed into law a $145 million settlement quashing the Western Shoshone land claims. For a few pennies per acre, the United States has officially settled, resolving the land claim. It's done.

But this federal settlement only gives legal cover. Western Shoshones, including Carrie Dann, who's in her 70s, and her older sister, Mary, have been fighting federal agents for decades. In 1974 the federal government sued the sisters for trespass. And in the years that followed federal agents have seized their cattle -- and generally enforced encroachment as a new way of life.

The Dann case reached the Supreme Court. In 1985 the court said the Indian Claims Commission had made an award -- even if no money had changed hands -- and had therefore completed the process.

"This very day, there is this bill that will forever change democracy to a tyrant or dictator," Carrie Dann wrote last month. "The United States through its manipulation and lies will now say they bought this land. Again, let me tell you all, my sacred sogabee is not for sale. It is my life and you should not bring shame and dishonor to the United States at this time. When the acts of the United States violate the human rights of its own people, those acts should not be taken."

Nevada Sen. Harry Reid said the bill means an overdue payment could be made to individual tribal members.

Indeed, the government says, Western Shoshones voted for this settlement. But critics say the majority of Western Shoshone tribal councils are on record against the settlement and say there hasn't been a full accounting of tribal members.

One tribal member who has supported the settlement is Nancy Stewart. "The needs of our people are simple," she told The Associated Press. "Most of our homes don't have telephones, 98 percent [of tribal people] don't own computers."

Stewart said the settlement was the only route because the return of millions of acres was never realistic.

That may well be true -- I have sympathy for those who would claim "something" as opposed to "nothing." But that does not make it right.

The entire land claim process was designed with one goal: Get tribes to take money to resolve messy land claims. The solution to "encroachment" was cash, not justice.

Last week's bill is one more item the United States can add to its apology list. But what happens after the government says it's sorry? Probably another apology -- just don't expect change.

Mark Trahant is editor of the editorial page. E-mail:

C1996-2004 Seattle Post-Intelligencer

Informant: Carrie Dann


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Juli 2004

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