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Bloomberg's "Non-Apology" Apology

New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg still does not get it.

Back in August, he told a radio audience that he advised Gov. David Paterson to “get a cowboy hat and a shotgun” to resolve the issue of having sovereign Indian governments collect New York’s sales taxes on cigarettes. More than 100 New York Indians staged a protest at City Hall, calling on the mayor to apologize.

The Seneca Indians explored the idea of filing a formal “hate speech” complaint with the U.S. Department of Justice. The National Congress of American Indians and the United South and Eastern Tribes also weighed in, taking the mayor to task for his thoughtless, hurtful words.

The mayor himself would not respond to any of these events. Instead, he ducked behind his staff, who claimed he had said nothing wrong and had no intention to apologize or rescind his remarks. As far as the mayor was concerned, this controversy was much ado about nothing.

But the ado refused to die. At a Harvard panel discussion on live television Nov. 1 about the midterm elections, a student in the audience confronted Bloomberg about his remarks, giving the mayor an opportunity to belatedly acknowledge and atone for his insensitivity. This time, Bloomberg could not hide behind others to do his bidding.

Bloomberg again displayed his arrogance and his utter lack of respect for Native people. He uttered a classic non-apology apology. He does not regret making his comment—he regrets only “if” people were offended by them. Once again, Bloomberg hides, this time behind word-play and semantics.

“I don’t know that there were very many Indians offended. If they were, I apologize to them,” he said.

A protest at City Hall; innumerable letters from Indian leaders sent directly to the mayor; resolutions condemning his remarks and requesting an apology—a genuine apology—from two of the largest Indian organizations in the United States. And Mayor Bloomberg doesn’t think very many Indians were offended? What do we have to do to get him to take us seriously—build a ceremonial retreat two blocks from the World Trade Center site?

Mayor Bloomberg didn’t invoke the Crusades when he involved himself in the controversy over the Islamic community center near Ground Zero. Why does he continue to think that invoking the Old West—the violent invasion and attempted eradication of the indigenous people here—is not offensive to Indians? Is it because the Indians remaining here today don’t have the numbers to help him get reelected? Or is it because he still views Native people as somehow subhuman, not deserving of ordinary courtesy and respect as should be afforded to all people. Leaders should treat all people with respect, not limited to those who share their opinions on sensitive issues.

Whatever his reasoning, the mayor has shown himself to be severely lacking in the power of a good mind when it comes to dealing with American Indian people. And that in itself makes our job more challenging, for how do you have a fruitful conversation with a bigot who doesn’t even recognize his own bigotry? It is time for a real apology and a meaningful dialogue. All people deserve that respect.

Ray Halbritter is the federally recognized representative of the Oneida Indian Nation and CEO of Oneida Nation Enterprises.

Editor’s note: Indian Country Today is a division of Four Directions Media, which is owned by Oneida Nation Enterprises, LLC.