Chief Smith Wants More Than An Apology

Monday, March 3rd 2008, 11:34 pm
By: News On 6

A U.S. Senator calls for a formal apology to Native Americans.  The apology would be to all Native Americans from the federal government for centuries of admitted mistreatment.  News On 6 anchor Jennifer Loren has more on the proposed legislation and what it would, or wouldn't mean, for one local tribe.

Inside the doors of the Cherokee Heritage Center in Tahlequah, you will find a history marred with broken promises, tragedy and no apologies.  The Cherokees' tumultuous relationship with the United States government has been sewn into the very fabric of who they are today:  a tribe struggling to be their own.

"There's just a reluctance by the United States government to let go and let the tribes begin to operate themselves, but still adhere to their historical treaty promises," said Cherokee Chief Chad Smith.

Current Chief of the Cherokee Nation, Chad Smith, teaches a Cherokee history class.  For many of his students and the rest of the world, the only Native American tragedies they know of are the ones played out by actors in movies.

"The most egregious part of the history doesn't appear on the big screen. It's buried in bills and laws and federal actions that have never seen the light of day," said Chief Chad Smith.

Treaties and bills and court decisions like the 1831 Supreme Court ruling to leave the Cherokees alone to govern themselves.  It was a ruling President Andrew Jackson ignored.

Of all the events that need to be apologized for, most Cherokee citizens will tell you the event depicted by these statues was the worst:  the infamous Trail of Tears.

Beads at the heritage center represent the 15,000 Cherokees removed from their own lands, forced to march toward present-day Oklahoma.  The black beads represent the thousands who died on the trail, the red beads, those who died as a result of the journey.

But even as students learn from a history of lies and broken promises, Chief Smith says the tragedies continue today.

"You know even today we see breaches of duties to tribes, breeches of treaty responsibilities.  And, that is really what would make that apology mean something is if there's an actual change in philosophy, a change in policy that the United States keeps its word rather than just say we're sorry for when we broke it in the past," said Chief Chad Smith.

The apology has been written into the Indian Health Care Improvement Act and approved by the U.S. Senate.  The bill's future is now in the hands of the House of Representatives.