Apologizing to Native America – in a Whisper

by A. Jay Adler on May 21, 2010
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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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