Apologizing to Native America – in a Whisper

Reader Yuras Karpau, from Belarus, asks in the comments section what I think of Wednesday’s official apology by the United States government to American Indians. Yuras has an interest in Native American issues and is an ardent advocate of the cause of Leonard Peltier.

My first answer to such questions is always that it doesn’t matter what I think. Like Yuras, I’m just an onlooker, with interest. What matters is what American Indians think. But I do have an opinion, and while I don’t know for sure the general feeling of Native America toward this development, I do have an idea what it is.

First, let’s start with the fact that you probably didn’t know that the apology took place. Did you see it reported on television? Hear it on radio? Read it in your daily newspaper? Google it, and you’ll find a brief AP story, a UPI story (yeah, UPI is around, much altered) and a bit of coverage from little known and foreign sources. Yuras found the story in the Telegraph, in the UK. Even Indian Country Today did not report the story.

Big deal, huh?

The apology has been a special pursuit of conservative Senator Sam Brownback of Kansas, a surprising activist on the issue. My own work on the Native issue is prompted by the belief that most Americans don’t think about Native America at all. If you want an idea of what some conservatives think about American Indians, and the history of the country in relation to them – when prompted to think – check out the first entries in “The Open Mind” exchanges on the horizontal menu above, beginning with the very first, introductory entry, so you will know what sets them off. Prepare for a revelation.

In that context, and considering his effort of several years, I think Brownback has to be taken as sincere in his regrets and his intentions. They are admirable. In the end, he got a congressional resolution passed by both houses of congress and signed by the President of the United States.

A resolution – an apology – that barely anyone has heard of or knows has taken place.

With the leaders of five tribes in attendance, Sen. Sam Brownback of Kansas read a congressional resolution today apologizing for “ill-conceived policies” and acts of violence against American Indians by the U.S. government.

Brownback spoke during an event at the Congressional Cemetery in Washington, D.C., where he and Reps. Jim McDermott of Washington, Lois Capps of California and Mazie Hirono of Hawaii joined representatives from the Cherokee, Choctaw, Muscogee (Creek), Sisseton Wahpeton Oyate and Pawnee nations, Cherokee Nation Chief Chad Smith said.

Five tribes, four from neighboring Oklahoma, one from South Dakota – of the hundreds of American Indian Tribes. One senator and three congressional representatives. No one from the executive branch. Look at the photo in the AP story. You will get an idea of the venue and the occasion.

Kevin Rudd on screen in Federation Square, Mel...
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In contrast, when Australia apologized to its aboriginal population, the event had been preceded by a decade by the institution of National Sorry Day, the first or 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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6 thoughts on “Apologizing to Native America – in a Whisper

  1. Thanks for this post Jay. I’m one of those people who thinks he’s fairly well informed, yet I missed the news story of the apology, such as it was.

    I also appreciate your perspective on it. Certainly our country was one born of violence to many, and the very least we can do is apologize in a profound way, if we can’t make right the wrongs. Too bad the U.S. couldn’t take the Australian example.

  2. I followed the links to the open mind introduction and the conservative reaction is quite shocking! How can people think that the “biological warfare” against the natives was unintentional when people like Jeffrey Amherst intentionally infected tribes with the cold virus to kill them off? I think the way Australia apologised was healthy. Not being Native American myself, I’m only speculating here, but I think the denial of Manifest Destiny and other policies by some Americans is what hurts the most. Plenty of people put in German and Russian camps during World War 2 didn’t bother collecting reparations (my grandparents among them), because what they really wanted was just to have an acknowledgment that what was done to them was wrong.

    1. Marcella, good points, all. Thank you.

      I’ve also been meaning to write and say, yes, it would be all right to dig Hegel up just to kick the shit out of him.

  3. I must say as an Australian currently living in the US that I’m torn by the whole issue. On one side, I’m proud and thankful that an Australian Prime Minister has finally acknowledged the harm done and accepted that despite the often best intentions (the Stolen Generations began as an attempt to find safe, loving homes for part-Aboriginal children who were the result of rape and were being abused – but that original set of good intentions became something completely different and much, much worse than the circumstances they were removed from) the end result was horrific and tragic.

    On the other side, I don’t accept that someone who had no part in an abusive situation and has not benefited from it in any direct fashion owes anything to the descendants of the victims. Nor would I consider it reasonable to think that an apology – an expression of human sympathy and regret – should open the way to reparations, not least because the further back an injustice goes, the more diffuse responsibility becomes. In Australia’s case, the Stolen Generations are people alive now who were taken from their families and housed in often abusive orphanages or foster care. They deserve apology – but who should pay reparation? The bureaucrats who authorized their removal? The people who abused them? The owners of the orphanages? For that matter, some of those Stolen Children benefited – the children who were being abused by their family and were adopted into a loving, caring situation, given access to opportunities that would have otherwise been denied them (and in many cases eventually became powerful advocates for their less fortunate fellows). There’s no good answer – and in my view the best possible “reparation”, if such it is, is to ask the people of the Aboriginal communities what they need to regain their dignity and begin to rebuild their shattered cultures. Then provide it. One thing that has done some good in many communities is not overruling the elders when they insist their community be ‘dry’ – there is an immense problem with alcohol abuse in Aboriginal communities (I think this is a combination of not having centuries of alcohol use to build genetic tolerance, and the inevitable attempts of broken people to escape from a terrible situation).

    I don’t know how analogous the situation is here with native Americans. I know there were treaties made and then broken, and that at least some of the earlier governments of this country regarded the native people as impediments to be removed. Would asking the native American communities what they need to rebuild their cultures and providing as much help as they want (and getting out of the way if that’s what’s needed) help?

    I don’t know. Perhaps what’s more tragic, nothing I’ve seen tried has done much good.

    1. Kate, it’s interesting to get an Australian’s perspective. Of course, there is no reason at all that an apology has to be connected to reparations. Often, people who have no interest in acknowledging the reality of the past and accepting any national responsibility for it will immediately raise the reparations issue as a way to dismiss the whole matter. They will likewise raise various complicating issues (the world is always complicated, no?) as a way of arguing that it is all too complicated to ever address: let’s just forget the past. There are reasonable answers to many of the complications you mention, if people have a will to put them into action. Even reparations could be addressed (separately) in one manner or another. Your idea of asking Native communities what they want and need seems so common sensical, doesn’t it? The problem for many unsympathetic Americans – as it always has been – is that what might sound fine in principle is unacceptable to them if it in any way challenges the unchecked prerogatives they gained through conquest. One might call action not reparations, but simply a program of action to address great social ills – but the same people are opposed to such programs too.

      Now, one might ask, if the crime was one of theft of land – the Black Hills of South Dakota, for instance, promised to the Lakota in treaty, and a patrimony to descendants – then are not those living today also victims? Family descendents of those from whom Nazi’s stole art have been considered rightful, legal claimants of those stolen treasures, which, too, seems common sensical.

      On the subject of what the nation today might “owe” in responsibility for crimes of the past, you might be interested in this post of mine: Historical Identity and Cultural Responsibility.

  4. Thanks Jay.

    Unfortunately, I have noticed for a long time that in the USA the attention to problems of own indigenous population carries marginal character. What to do? Such are people, such is history of this state.

    From its part I can inform that the attention to problems of democracy and human rights in the countries of the former USSR carries also marginal character. What to do? Such are people, such is history of this state. Already were, but generated “parade of sovereignties” in the post-USSR countries. However, not much different from a primogenitor.

    Also what further? To watch process and to promote it natural development, only, human, not to a bloody-brutal course.

    Whether I will wait, that Peltier have released? For me it is important, as I have learnt about its stories 20 years ago, have then forgotten, and now have again come across his name and was terrified – at us so much social changes, and in the USA indian Peltier still in prison. So it is impossible. The USA should vary together with all world …

    These Apologies, though also formal, made for abroad, all the same a step to the necessary direction.

    (automatic online translation).

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