Official apologizes to Indians

Saturday, September 9th 2000, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

WASHINGTON – The Bureau of Indian Affairs marked its 175th anniversary Friday in a ceremony that blended sorrow, hope and a remarkable apology from the bureau's director.

Pawnee singer Tom Knife Chief

Assistant Interior Department Secretary Kevin Gover

"In truth, this is no occasion for celebration," said Kevin Gover, the assistant Interior Department secretary who heads the bureau. Instead, he said, this is a time "for sorrowful truths to be spoken, a time for contrition."

Mr. Gover recounted the bureau's evolution from a War Department office that dealt with what white Americans saw as the "Indian problem" to an agency of the Department of the Interior entrusted with promoting tribal autonomy and bettering the lives of American Indians.

"This agency participated in the ethnic cleansing that befell the Western tribes," he said. "This agency set out to destroy all things Indian. The legacy of these misdeeds haunts us."

Mr. Gover then offered a formal apology to American Indians on behalf of the bureau. Even after its mission changed, he said, and "despite the efforts of many good people with good hearts," the agency made little headway for decades against alcoholism, drug abuse, suicide and domestic violence.

"Let us begin by expressing our profound sorrow for what the agency has done in the past," Mr. Gover said. "Our hearts break."

What made his apology all the more remarkable is that Mr. Gover himself is a member of the Pawnee Tribe.

In a way, he stood Friday as a bridge between two societies. A native of Lawton, Okla., he graduated from Princeton with a degree in public and international affairs, then from the University of New Mexico law school.

Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt spoke at the ceremony and called the bureau "a work in progress," an agency in transition but one that now belongs to American Indians, who make up the great majority of its 10,000 employees.

"May you prosper, grow, advocate, get under people's skins," Mr. Babbitt said.

Sen. Daniel Inouye, D-Hawaii, who was praised by Mr. Gover as being in the forefront of Indian-rights issues, said the Bureau of Indian Affairs "creates the potential for a brighter future."

And Lynn Cutler, a White House adviser on Indian issues, delivered a congratulatory message from President Clinton, who paid tribute to American Indians as "our country's first people."

The ceremony reflected how Indian culture has endured and how it has been assimilated.

A number of tribal leaders were present, some wearing traditional jewelry and headbands.

Traditional music was piped into the auditorium in the Department of Interior building, a vast structure in part of a sprawling bureaucracy.

Mr. Gover himself is familiar with the corridors of Washington power. From 1983 to 1986, he specialized in Indian and environmental litigation for a Washington law firm.

In 1986, he formed his own firm in Albuquerque, N.M. Before becoming the bureau director in 1997, he lobbied on behalf of the Tesuque Pueblo Tribe to secure a gambling casino.

But as he stood on stage Friday, his heart was clearly somewhere else. His voice faltered as he spoke of "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."

Such sufferings inflicted on American Indians, he said, "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."