U.S. Apology to Native Americans

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Native American Tribes Struggle to Gain Government Recognition. Getty Images

In 1993, the U.S. Congress devoted an entire resolution to apologizing to Native Hawaiians for overthrowing their kingdom in 1893. But a U.S. apology to Indigenous tribes took until 2009 and came stealthily tucked away in an unrelated spending bill.

If you just happened to be reading the 67-page Defense Appropriations Act of 2010 (H.R. 3326), tucked away on page 45, in between sections detailing how much of your money the U.S. military would spend on what, you might notice Section 8113: "Apology to Native Peoples of the United States."

Sorry for the 'Violence, Maltreatment, and Neglect'

"The United States, acting through Congress," states Sec. 8113, "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 citizens of the United States;" and "expresses its regret for the ramifications of former wrongs and its commitment to build on the positive relationships of the past and present to move toward a brighter future where all the people of this land live reconciled as brothers and sisters, and harmoniously steward and protect this land together."

But, You Can't Sue Us for It

Of course, the apology also makes it clear that it in no way admits liability in any of the dozens of lawsuits still pending against the U.S. government by Indigenous peoples.

"Nothing in this section ... authorizes or supports any claim against the United States; or serves as a settlement of any claim against the United States," declares the apology.

The apology also urges the president to "acknowledge the wrongs of the United States against Indigenous tribes in the history of the United States in order to bring healing to this land."

Acknowledgement by President Obama

President Obama publicly acknowledged the "Apology to Native Peoples of the United States" in 2010.

If the wording of the apology sounds vaguely familiar, it's because it is the same as that in the Native American Apology Resolution (S.J.RES. 14), proposed in both 2008 and 2009 by former U.S. senators Sam Brownback (R-Kansas) and Byron Dorgan (D., North Dakota). The senators' unsuccessful efforts to pass a stand-alone Native American Apology Resolution date back to 2004.

Along with its 1993 apology to Native Hawaiians, Congress had previously apologized to Japanese-Americans for their internment during World War II and to Black Americans for allowing slavery to exist in the United States prior to emancipation.

Navajo Nation Was Not Impressed 

On December 19, 2012, Mark Charles, representing the Navajo Nation, hosted a public reading of the Apology to Native Peoples of the United States in front of the Capitol in Washington, D.C.

"This apology was buried in H.R. 3326, the 2010 Department of Defense Appropriations Act," wrote Charles on his Reflections from the Hogan blog. "It was signed by President Obama on Dec. 19, 2009, but was never announced, publicized or read publicly by either the White House or the 111th Congress."

"Given the context, the appropriations sections of H.R. 3326 sounded almost nonsensical," wrote Charles. "We were not pointing fingers, nor were we calling out our leaders by name, we were just highlighting the inappropriateness of the context and delivery of their apology."

What About Reparations?

This official apology naturally raises the question of reparations to Indigenous peoples for their decades of mistreatment at the hands of the U.S. Government. While the issue of reparations to Black people for enslavement is regularly debated, similar reparations to Indigenous peoples is rarely mentioned. The reason most often cited for the discrepancy is the difference between the Black American and Indigenous experiences. Black Americans—sharing the same history, culture, and language—also shared similar experiences of prejudice and segregation. In comparison, various Indigenous tribes—encompassing dozens of different cultures and languages—had vastly different experiences. According to the government, these differing experiences makes arriving at a blanket reparation policy for Indigenous peoples nearly impossible.

The issue returned to the public spotlight in February 2019, when Sen. Elizabeth Warren, at the time one of several Democratic 2020 presidential hopefuls, stated that Indigenous peoples should be included in the “conversation” on reparations for Black Americans. Warren, who had controversially claimed to be of Indigenous ancestry herself, told reporters in Manchester, N.H., that America has an “ugly history of racism” and suggested reparations as one way to deal with it. “We need to confront it head-on and we need to talk about the right away to address it and make change,” she said.

Apology to Native Hawaiians

On November 23, 1993, the U.S. Congress passed and President Bill Clinton signed a joint resolution acknowledging the 100th anniversary of the January 17, 1893 overthrow of the Kingdom of Hawaii, and offering an apology to Native Hawaiians on behalf of the United States.

Informally known as the Apology Resolution, the resolution acknowledges that “the overthrow of the Kingdom of Hawaii occurred with the active participation of agents and citizens of the United States and further acknowledges that the Native Hawaiian people never directly relinquished to the United States their claims to their inherent sovereignty.” It further apologizes for the overthrow and the deprivation of the rights of Native Hawaiians to self-determination and expresses Congress’ commitment to providing a foundation for reconciliation between the United States and the Native Hawaiian people. The resolution was passed in the Senate by a vote of 65–34. In the House, it was passed by a two-thirds voice vote.

The Apology Resolution was derived mainly from the Blount Report, which was compiled shortly after the overthrow of the Hawaiian monarchy in the spring of 1893. Blount found strongly in the favor of Hawaiian Queen Liliʻuokalani, and her supporters. Blount’s report was an official criticism of the U.S.'s role in the overthrow. President Grover Cleveland was also strongly supportive of Liliʻuokalani’s position and made official statements supporting the view held in the Blount Report. These official statements by the U.S. Government are seen as historical evidence for the claims made by the Apology Resolution.

Parallels between Native Hawaiians and Native Americans

Intended as a means of reconciliation with Native Hawaiians, the Apology Resolution acknowledges the historic significance of the events surrounding the overthrow of the Kingdom of Hawaii but does not provide federal recognition to Native Hawaiians as other federal laws provide to Native American tribes. 

Although the histories of the treatment of Native Hawaiians and Native Americans are significantly different, there remains a widely held perception that Native Hawaiians have received similar kinds of unfair treatment from the U.S. Government as Native Americans. The Apology Resolution is thus seen as a means of acknowledging historical grievances that Native Hawaiians believe are valid. Some also see it as a step towards identifying Native Hawaiians as indigenous people to preserve for them specific legal rights based on ancestry. Some also see it as the beginning of a process to provide compensation or reparation to native Hawaiians for alleged past injustices.

In July 2014, the U.S. Department of the Interior completed two weeks of public meetings in Hawaii soliciting input from the Native Hawaiian community on setting up a structure similar to the one it has with Native American tribes.

During the hearings, residents delivered passionate accounts of Hawaiian history, U.S. militarism, cultural and environmental degradation, land disputes, and a steady stream of "no's" to the proposals offered by the Department of Interior. “The Kingdom of Hawaii was never a tribe,” one resident testified, “We are a sovereign nation.”

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Longley, Robert. "U.S. Apology to Native Americans." ThoughtCo, Dec. 1, 2022, thoughtco.com/the-us-apologized-to-native-americans-3974561. Longley, Robert. (2022, December 1). U.S. Apology to Native Americans. Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/the-us-apologized-to-native-americans-3974561 Longley, Robert. "U.S. Apology to Native Americans." ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/the-us-apologized-to-native-americans-3974561 (accessed June 9, 2023).