Beech: Breath life and meaning into apology

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When President Obama signed into law the 2010 Defense Appropriations Act Dec. 19, it included a footnote, entitled Section 8113, otherwise known as an “apology to Native Peoples of the United States.”

The passage of the apology resolution went largely unnoticed on the national scene; indeed, even the White House is said to be unsure of what to do with Section 8113 beyond signing it into law.

That’s because leaders in Indian country are divided over the meaningfulness of a statement from the nation telling Native people it is sorry “for the many instances of violence, maltreatment, and neglect inflicted on Native Peoples by citizens of the United States” as the condensed resolution states.

Leaders in Indian country are divided over the meaningfulness of a statement from the nation telling Native people it is sorry.

Some tribal leaders have told the nation’s leaders: Put your money where your mouth is with more money for tribal programs and reparations to Native people for past wrongs. Other tribal leaders say an apology is long overdue, and would help heal some deep wounds in our nation’s psyche.

The national apology is the culmination of a five-year attempt by Sen. Sam Brownback of Kansas to get legislation passed that attempts, in part, to right the wrongs of the past through a formal apology. Brownback said he introduced the legislation, not because of any broad-based support in his state for the apology, but because he was personally remorseful for the government’s past treatment of Native Americans.

During his election campaign, President Obama also told a Native reporter, when asked, that he felt a national apology to Native people was in order.

At this point, the question for many is: What constitutes a national apology? Should it be left as an obscure attachment to an appropriations bill, a mention in some upcoming presidential speech or perhaps a ceremony bringing together national leaders and representatives of those whose lives were marred by harsh federal policies designed to “Kill the Indian, save the man?”

Those words were spoken by the founder of the U.S. Indian boarding school system in 1892. Army officer Richard Pratt founded the first of these schools based on an education program he had developed in an Indian prison, and while the nation was still at war with tribes.

Last May, the nonprofit organization White Bison undertook a 40-day, 6,800-mile cross-country journey to 23 present and former Indian boarding school sites to raise awareness in Indian country about how the trauma of beatings, humiliation and sexual abuse experienced by our ancestors at the early Indian boarding schools still haunts Native communities today.

The journey came one year after the prime ministers of Canada and Australia verbally apologized for imposing the U.S. boarding school model on the Native peoples there. It was emotional to watch via Internet the reaction of Native people June 11, 2008, when Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper, in a speech to Parliament and Native leaders, apologized to survivors of the Indian residential school system.

When Canada said those words, “I’m sorry.” It meant something.

The healing effects of Canada’s and Australia’s willingness to say, “I’m sorry,” is also what prompted White Bison to carry a petition on its cross-country journey calling on President Obama to issue a formal apology for the abuse of Native American children at the early boarding schools.

We owe it to the past and future generations to begin healing from the scars of early Indian-white relations in this country.

That petition, which is still available for online signature – www.thepetitionsite.com/1/Apology-For-Indian-School-Abuses – contained the names of more than 6,000 Indian and non-Indian people by the time the Journey ended at the National Museum of American Indian June 24. Unfortunately, despite repeated invites, no one from the White House was there to accept the petition.

Undeterred, White Bison commented on its Web site afterwards that, “Everything happens when the time is right,” and it holds out hope that a meaningful apology to Native Americans will come from this Congress and this administration as a result of the passage of Section 8113.

To those who still believe that the words “I’m sorry,” hold little value or meaning, I encourage you to read the heartwarming and the heartbreaking comments of the more than 5,000 Native and non-Native people who have signed the online petition supporting a national apology, and maybe add your comments.

We are certainly not the first country to reach this junction in our history. The famous South African leader Desmond Tutu once commented about his own country’s racial struggles, “Without forgiveness there can be no future for a relationship between individuals or within and between nations.”

As a nation, we owe it to the past and future generations to begin healing from the scars of early Indian-white relations in this country. A good start would be a public statement for widespread abuses at the early Indian boarding schools.

Laverne Beech is a member of the Shoshone-Bannock Tribes of Idaho and serves on the White Bison board of directors.