WASHINGTON - The head of the federal Bureau of Indian Affairs apologized today for the agency's "legacy of racism and inhumanity" that included massacres, forced relocations of tribes and attempts to wipe out Indian languages and cultures.
"By accepting this legacy, we accept also the moral responsibility of putting things right," Kevin Gover, a Pawnee Indian, said in an emotional speech marking the agency's 175th anniversary.
Gover said he was apologizing on behalf of the BIA, not the federal government as a whole. Still, he is the highest-ranking U.S. official ever to make such a statement regarding the treatment of American Indians.
The audience of about 300 tribal leaders, BIA employees and federal officials stood and cheered as a teary-eyed Gover finished the speech.
"I thought it was a very heroic and historic moment," said Susan Masten, chairwoman of California's Yurok tribe and president of the National Congress of American Indians. "For us, there was a lot of emotion in that apology. It's important for us to begin to heal from what has been done since non-Indian contact."
Lloyd Tortalita, the governor of New Mexico's Acoma Pueblo tribe, welcomed the apology but said, "If we could get an apology from the whole government, that would be better."
Although Gover's statement did not come from the White House, President Clinton's chief adviser on Indian issues, Lynn Cutler, said Gover sent her a copy of his speech late Thursday and the White House did not object to it.
Canada's government has formally apologized for abuses in government-run boarding schools for Indians but has rejected calls for a broader apology. Australian Prime Minister John Howard also has rebuffed repeated calls for an apology to that country's Aboriginal population for similar abuses there.
Gover recited a litany of wrongs the BIA inflicted on Indians since its creation as the Indian Office of the War Department. Estimates vary widely, but the agency is believed responsible for the deaths of hundreds of thousands of Indians.
"This agency participated in the ethnic cleansing that befell the Western tribes," Gover said. "It must be acknowledged that the deliberate spread of disease, the decimation of the mighty bison herds, the use of the poison alcohol to destroy mind and body, and the cowardly killing of women and children made for tragedy on a scale so ghastly that it cannot be dismissed as merely the inevitable consequence of the clash of competing ways of life."
The misery continued after the BIA became part of the Interior Department in 1849, Gover said. Children were brutalized in BIA-run boarding schools, Indian languages and religious practices were banned and traditional tribal governments were eliminated, he said. The high rates of alcoholism, suicide and violence in Indian communities today are the result, he said.
"Poverty, ignorance and disease have been the product of this agency's work," Gover said.
Now, 90 percent of the BIA's 10,000 employees are Indian and the agency has changed into an advocate for tribal governments.
"Never again will we attack your religions, your languages, your rituals, or any of your tribal ways," Gover promised. "Never again will we seize your children, nor teach them to be ashamed of who they are. Never again."
On the Net:
Bureau of Indian Affairs: http://www.doi.gov/bureau-indian-affairs.html
National Congress of American Indians: http://www.ncai.org/