A Proper Apology to Native America

Though I have been advocating for a few years now an annual day of remembrance of the crimes against Native America, to coincide in historically instructive fashion with Columbus Day, Thanksgiving is, for what should be obvious reasons, a good time to remember too. Indian Country Today reports,

President Barack Obama will be asked – again – for a formal and public apology to Indian country on behalf of the U.S. government for past atrocities, said Don Coyhis, whose White Bison Inc. made a cross-country trek in 2009 fruitlessly seeking such an acknowledgment.

Instead, Coyhis noted, the president issued an “Apology to Native Peoples of the United States” last December that was buried in the Defense Appropriations Act and was “never properly presented to Native Americans and to the American people.”

The White Bison apology initiative is specifically directed at the history of abuse through the Indian Boarding Schools. Australia and Canada have already apologized, in general, to their native populations, and more particularly for policies directed at indigenous children. White Bison is collecting signatures on a petition for its cause, which you can sign here.

In fact, this past May, the Apology to Native Peoples was provided a formal presentation – from one senator, Brownback of Kansas, an ardent proponent of its cause, and three representatives to the leaders of only five of the 564 federally recognized and more state recognized Indian Tribes. Did you know about it? Well, that’s the point.

Of course, there continue to be those who, in ugly fashion, callously dismiss the nature and significance of the settling of the North American continent by Europeans and its consequences for the continents native population. (You can listen to a leading figure in this hateful rejection, the always repulsive Rush Limbaug, this Thanksgiving, here.) There are those, more sympathetic, even, sometimes, Indians themselves, who dismiss the symbolism of mere apologies. Of course, an apology is best when it is not mere, but it is also true that our lives are suffused with symbols. They are not food or drink, but history shows they are essential to who we are.

Currently, a key purpose of White Bison’s new Boarding School Apology Initiative is to encourage Obama to present the apology of the Appropriations Act “to a Native organization – for example, the National Congress of American Indians – visibly and with adequate media coverage so that all people will know that the government has apologized,” Coyhis said.

That is part of the meaning of a symbol, its context: to whom the apology is delivered, by whom, in what setting, and what precisely its says are crucial to its value. The U.S., in fact, is lagging behind in facing the legacy of its treatment of its Native population. When The Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples was adopted by the General Assembly in 2007, the U.S. was only four nations to vote against it. Australia and New Zealand have since reversed their votes, and Canada has announced its intention to do so. In April of this year the Obama administration announced only its intention to review its vote.

If we wish to have some idea of what a genuine apology looks like, delivered in a setting profound in its manner and import, we need only look to the Australian example, in which, Australian indigenous leaders had said, the word “sorry” needed to appear. As I wrote in May,

[W]hen Australia apologized to its aboriginal population, the event had been preceded by a decade by the institution of National Sorry Day, the first of which, in 1998, drew over a million people to its various events. When the apology was finally delivered – not read by a single senator, but by the prime minister of Australia – it was offered, on February 13, 2008, in a motion and speech before parliament by Prime Minister Kevin Rudd. It was televised, and Australians gathered at venues throughout the country to listen to and watch the address. Every living prime minister of Australia, but one, was present in parliament as Rudd began with these words:

Today we honour the Indigenous peoples of this land, the oldest continuing cultures in human history.

We reflect on their past mistreatment.

We reflect in particular on the mistreatment of those who were Stolen Generations – this blemished chapter in our nation’s history.

The time has now come for the nation to turn a new page in Australia’s history by righting the wrongs of the past and so moving forward with confidence to the future.

We apologise for the laws and policies of successive Parliaments and governments that have inflicted profound grief, suffering and loss on these our fellow Australians.

We apologise especially for the removal of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children from their families, their communities and their country.

For the pain, suffering and hurt of these Stolen Generations, their descendants and for their families left behind, we say sorry.

To the mothers and the fathers, the brothers and the sisters, for the breaking up of families and communities, we say sorry.

And for the indignity and degradation thus inflicted on a proud people and a proud culture, we say sorry.

We the Parliament of Australia respectfully request that this apology be received in the spirit in which it is offered as part of the healing of the nation.

For the future we take heart; resolving that this new page in the history of our great continent can now be written.

We today take this first step by acknowledging the past and laying claim to a future that embraces all Australians.

That is an apology for historic injustice. That is how it is delivered. That is how it is begun to be made meaningful, true meaning lying in action. For action, the United States can begin by signing the U.N. Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, against which it is very close to becoming the sole hold out.

Then it can try again. And do it right.

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5 thoughts on “A Proper Apology to Native America

  1. You know, this got me thinking. When is Rome going to apologize for its crimes against the indigenous people of Israel i.e. the Jews and Samaritans? I believe an apology is long overdue.

    I’d include Palestinians in this as well, but they didn’t come until later even though they also have Hebrew descent.

      1. They should just take it to the Italian government. The Roman Empire may have collapsed (as it deserved to), but we still continue to hold Germany responsible for its crimes, even though the Nazis have been eliminated.

        1. Actual German reparations to Israel, as representative for Eastern German Jewry, were negotiated a mere seven years after the end of World War II, by the successor government, paid in sum and responsibility by a people literally responsible for the Holocaust to people directly victimized by it. One can conceptually stretch all of the notions above, but to a different nation 1600 years removed over many disparate social regimes, and a people only genetically related, would defy practical sense. I continue to wonder if you’re serious.

  2. As the host of my Thanksgiving table, I always take a moment to commemorate the friendship extended to us Europeans by the native peoples, who, in so doing, unwittingly participated in their own demise. Paternally, I am descended from French Huguenots escaping persecution in Gascony. Yet those same stock became part of the intolerant fundamentalist Christian mob we call the Bible Belt. By imposing a white, European view of superiority over the rights of indiginous families deemed less than our own, we perpetuated an immoral mindset that sadly lives on in the conservative “philosophy.” Sign the petition.

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