American Indian Month kicks off today with a sunrise prayer ceremony at the University of Minnesota. But prayers are even better when they are backed by action.

It is time to apologize to the first Americans. If Australia can do the right thing, the United States can, too.

Prime Minister Kevin Rudd recently apologized to Australia's indigenous inhabitants, the Aborigines, who, Rudd said, had experienced "profound grief, suffering and loss."

America has a similar past. And if we are ready to discuss apologizing to our indigenous people, let the discussion begin here, in Minnesota.

We're a tough case.

The late Gov. Rudy Perpich proclaimed a Year of Reconciliation in 1987 in the hope that the 125th anniversary of the 1862 Dakota War would be a fitting time to talk honestly about the causes of the war and its legacy -- decades of oppression, racism and government neglect that followed.

Not much reconciling occurred. And not much will be said about it during statehood week, May 11-18, when Minnesota celebrates its sesquicentennial during American Indian Month.

"A lot of Indians don't see the sesquicentennial as something to celebrate," says Leonard Wabasha, a Dakota whose parents, Ernest and Vernell, were sent to Indian boarding schools as children. "It's just another year and an anniversary that reminds us of what was taken away, and what we lost."

"A celebration makes it too painful to discuss some things," agrees Jane Leonard, executive director of the Minnesota Sesquicentennial. But she says the 1862 Dakota War and its aftermath will be on the agenda May 16, when Winona becomes Capital For A Day.

Event fosters understanding

Winona has sponsored an annual "Great Dakota Gathering and Homecoming" since 2004 to promote reconciliation and understanding (this year's event is scheduled June 7-8). So it's not surprising that Winona's May 16 program will begin with a sunrise prayer ceremony and then turn to some tough talk with a "Truth Telling Circle." Invited state and Indian leaders will discuss racism, genocide and Indian issues in Minnesota, from before statehood up to the sesquicentennial.

"If it is not addressed, there's always going to be hard feelings," says Roger Trudell, chairman of the Santee Sioux Tribe of Nebraska, where many Dakota ended up after years of exile and starvation. "We are descendants of those who were hanged at Mankato and imprisoned at Davenport," said Trudell, who will be part of the Truth Telling Circle. "We took the brunt of the punishment. And you would think someone ought to apologize for that."

Someone might.

"It's the right thing for our country to do," Sen. Byron Dorgan, a North Dakota Democrat who is chairman of the Senate Indian Affairs Committee, said Wednesday. "Throughout our history, our first Americans have suffered from actions and policies that caused a great deal of harm."

A resolution apologizing to Indians was introduced in 2006 and again in 2007 by Rep. Jo Ann Davis of Virginia, who died late last year. The resolution acknowledges American Indians have suffered "extermination, termination, forced removal and relocation [and] the outlawing of traditional religions and the destruction of sacred places."

The apology was approved by Dorgan's committee but has not been voted on by the full Senate. In the House, it is in the Committee on Natural Resources. Rep. Betty McCollum, DFL-St. Paul, is the only Minnesota co-sponsor of the apology.

Maybe the Aussies are way ahead of us. Maybe America isn't big enough to apologize for wrongs.

'Prayers for the people'

"I think it's time," says Robert DesJarlais, an Ojibwe from Red Lake who works with Indian wellness programs in St. Paul. "I don't think we'll get the kind of apology that would say 'Sorry for the genocide,' but some kind of apology is long overdue."

DesJarlais will introduce the prayers at today's ceremony at the university, when the Council of American Indian Elders begins American Indian Month about 6:30 a.m. in the East River Flats park, next to the Mississippi. The prayers will be offered by Jim Clairmont, a Lakota spiritual leader. DesJarlais doesn't understand Dakota. But he knows what Clairmont's prayers will say:

"They will be prayers for the people, and for healing. And to heal, you have to ask for forgiveness and recognize and understand the historical trauma. We don't live in the past, but we remember it. And we have to acknowledge it in order to move on."

So welcome to American Indian Month, everyone in the Land of Sky Tinted Waters.

It should be big.

Nick Coleman •