Kansas Republican Senator Sam Brownback has spearheaded the resolution, saying an apology would be “a step toward healing the wounds that have divided (Americans) for so long – a potential foundation for a new era of positive relations between Tribal governments and the federal government.”

The US Congress, though, rarely says sorry for official government conduct.

Two exceptions include a 1993 apology to native Hawaiians for the overthrow of Hawaii’s monarchy, and a 1998 apology to Japanese Americans held in detention camps during World War II.

African Americans have failed in their efforts to receive an apology for the systematic enslavement of their forebears.

But Senator Brownback’s resolution, co-sponsored by Democratic Senators Byron Dorgan and Christopher Dodd, has been warmly greeted by the Senate Committee on Indian Affairs.

The Committee’s Republican chairman, John McCain, has said he would help steer the resolution to the full Senate so it can be considered for a vote.

Although the resolution was passed by the committee last year, the Senate failed to act on it.

The resolution calls on the government to apologise on behalf of the people of the United States “for the many instances of violence, maltreatment, and neglect inflicted on native peoples by citizens of the Untied States.”

The document explicitly rules out serving as a means to settle any claim against the United States.

It also asks for forgiveness for massacres such as the 1864 Sand Creek Massacre in Colorado, where an estimated 200 people were killed, and the Wounded Knee Massacre in South Dakota, in which 350 Native Americans died in 1890.

Indigenous leaders said that while the apology was “a long time coming”, it would mean little unless backed by a commitment to help communities deal with the legacy of the past.

“An apology to us while ignoring the Third World conditions of our people just doesn’t seem genuine,” said Edward Thomas, the president of the central council of the Tlingit and Haida Indian Tribes of Alaska.

“The President (George W Bush) has proposed drastic budget cuts to many of the programmes that are vital to the health and well-being of our people,” Tex Hall, president of the National Congress of American Indians, said.

Republican Jo Ann Davis has introduced a similar resolution in the House of Representatives.