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  • "Never Again":Kevin Gover's Apology for the Bureau of Indian Affairs
  • Christopher Buck (bio)

On September 8, 2000, speaking on behalf of the Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA), Assistant Secretary of the Interior Kevin Gover offered a historic apology for the agency's policies and actions throughout its 175-year history—particularly for its devastating impact on American Indian nations, whether federally recognized, unrecognized, or extinct.1 Over much of its history,2 the BIA wreaked havoc in Indian Country through policies that, in their most extreme forms, ranged from extermination (physical genocide) to assimilation (cultural genocide). Indeed, its legacy of anti-Indian abuses of power staggers the imagination and remains a source of profound shame for nearly every American of conscience who is aware of this relentless assault on all things Indian. In his capacity as assistant secretary for Indian affairs under the Clinton administration (November 1997 to January 2001), Gover took the occasion of the BIA's 175th anniversary as an opportunity to make history by apologizing for it.

Gover's apology was official as to the BIA itself, but did not presume to speak on behalf of the federal government. Nevertheless the event was as controversial as it was historic. Sadly, it was also as ephemeral as it was memorable. Although widely reported by the national and international press, Gover's apology has since suffered a death by silence. Recovery of the BIA's videotape of that event, however, and a formal reflection on its significance five years later, affords an ideal opportunity to reflect on the history that Gover made and its implications [End Page 97] for further remedial actions, particularly with regard to the issue of reparations. Educators, moreover, may take an interest in Gover's BIA apology as a resource for bringing university students (and the wider public) to a greater awareness of and sensitivity to unresolved issues of underrated magnitude that persist in Indian Country today. This paper revisits Gover's apology, and argues that this "Never Again" speech—as it has come to be known—should not languish in its current death by silence. To illumine public opinion and enlighten public policy, educators have a duty to carry forward the torch of Gover's message, in order to address past injustices and redress present inequities.

In 2000, the time had finally come for the BIA to speak to the Indian nations in a spirit of contrition. While a formal apology would have largely symbolic value only, the advent of the new millennium was an auspicious occasion for sending a signal federal message to Indian Country, an opportune time to make a formal apology that was long overdue. An apology that is too late can never be too soon. Acting entirely within his official prerogative, Gover was empowered to make this apology on behalf of the BIA. The White House had been duly informed when Gover sent President Clinton's chief adviser on Indian issues, Lynn Cutler, an advance copy of his speech. Although the White House did not object to it, the death by silence began even when Gover was speaking. During the speech, a representative of the White House was present—but chose neither to endorse nor comment on Gover's apology. Thus, although he was the top BIA official under Clinton's administration, Gover could not officially speak on behalf of that administration. The irony is this: while the administration did not oppose him, neither did it back him. The moment was golden, but the silence was deafening.

The time had come to look to the future by reflecting on the past. The BIA had operated continuously for 175 years. During most of that time, its policy was benighted, not enlightened. Established by Congress as part of the War Department in 1824, the BIA was transferred to the Department of the Interior in 1849. But the war metaphor persisted, and there were "Indian wars" to be fought. The BIA's enabling legislation couched malign policies in benign objectives. In theory, the BIA's mission was to assist Native Americans and Native Alaskans to manage their affairs under a trust relationship with the federal government. In practice, the BIA became...


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pp. 97-126
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