The Quiet American Apology to Indians
In her recent article in Indian Country Today, Lisa Balk King reports hearing a non-Indian in Rapid City scoff, “You were conquered, get over it!”
I don’t purport to speak for all Indian people here in the U.S. but I think I can say that overall, it’s been tough to bounce back from the whole conquest thing. It’s been the gift that just keeps on giving for many of us. The legacies of European conquest in the form of United States policies such as The Dawes Act, Relocation, forced sterilization, assimilation through relocation, forced attendance at government boarding schools and adoption of our children to say nothing of outright extermination have made a lasting impact on Native peoples.
So it stuck in our craws when last month President Obama failed, once again, to make the United States apology to Native Americans public.
President Obama signed The Native American Apology Resolution in December 2009, but he did so privately, shielded from the press. The Resolution wasn’t read publicly until May 2010 when its author, Sen. Sam Brownback (R-KS) read the bill at the Congressional Cemetery in Washington, D.C.
Source text here The apology reads in part as follows:
“The United States, acting through Congress … apologizes 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 United States [and] expresses its regret….”
The White House Tribal Nations Conference earlier this month would’ve been a great time to read this apology before the public. Instead, President Obama took the opportunity to showcase his signing of an Executive Order to Expand Opportunities and Improve Educational Outcomes for American Indian and Alaska Native students. The Order establishes an interagency working group of officials from many federal departments -- Education, Interior, Justice, Agriculture, Labor, Health and Human Services and Energy -- to come up with plans to increase capacity for Tribal Colleges and other institutions serving Native peoples.
This is good. Tribal colleges and universities are some of the scrappiest institutions I’ve ever encountered. They are often forced to rely on grants for the most basic of infrastructure needs.
Overall, President Obama has a good track record in terms of keeping promises with Indian Country. He signed the Tribal Law and Order Act, renewed the Indian Health Care Improvement Act and settled the $3.4 million Cobell lawsuit over mismanagement of Indian trust fund in 2009. Louise Cobell gave her life working toward this settlement. Indian Country is still waiting for dispersement of those funds that would mean so much to many people -- folks like my cousin Delphine, who is confined to a wheel chair after a drunk driver plowed into her car. She lives on less than $700.00 a month in disability payments and makes do by creating very cool regalia and clothing for those on the rez.
The Settlement is currently under appeal, a process that could delay payments more than a year.
Pete Souza/White House
But despite the Obama administration’s work on Native issues, many in Indian Country still say that a public apology is warranted and would go a long way toward healing our people and the nation as a whole. King points out that an apology “could provide a much-needed shift in public attitudes toward tribes in the country, as well as attitudes of Native people toward the federal government.”
Tex Hall, Chairman of the Mandan, Hidatsa and Arikara Nation in North Dakota agrees: “While some may say, ‘Let’s forget the past,’ the truth is that only through remembrance can our nation’s conscience heal, and only though amends can we truly move forward in strength, hope and justice.”
I think that the U.S. is terrified to make too much of the 2009 apology for fear of setting off something like Canada’s 2006 $2 billion compensation package for aboriginal peoples who were forced to attend residential schools. In 2008 Canada’s Prime Minister Stephen Harper publicly apologized to former students of the schools; the country also established a Truth and Reconciliation Commission to address the consequences of these institutions.
Between 1870-1996, over 150,000 aboriginal students attended Canada’s more than 130 residential schools. During approximately the same time period, the United States operated more than 100 similar schools with tens of thousands of students. Some Bureau of Indian Affairs residential schools are still in operation.
The record of these schools in the U.S. has been painfully similar to the Canadian experience: students were often abused and mistreated.
No way does the United States want to point toward such a level of compensation, especially in these uncertain fiscal times. I agree that an apology would be nice, but as my old mom used to say, “in the end, it’s all about the money.”