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Confronting the Past on the Anniversary of the Massacre at Wounded Knee: Why It Matters

The title of David Satter’s new book about the history of the former Soviet Union might well apply to a pervasive American attitude toward United States history in relation to the indigenous peoples of the continent: "It Was a Long Time Ago and It Never Happened Anyway." A review in Newsweek magazine describes the book as "a sweeping study of how the former Soviet Union’s bloody past continues to poison Russia’s present and threatens to strangle the country’s future." Satter is quoted as saying, "Russia today is haunted by words that have been left unsaid."

The United States is also haunted by a bloody and deceitful past, as we are reminded today, the anniversary of the Massacre at Wounded Knee on December 29, 1890. As Lise Balk King recently pointed out, the "apology" to American Indians President Obama signed two years ago was buried in an unrelated bill, the Defense Appropriations Act; the signing ceremony was closed to the press. That "apology" looks more like an effort to further bury the past, rather than to confront it.

Brazil recently formed a truth commission to examine abuses of the dictatorship that dominated the country from 1964-1985; but the military figures implicated are fighting to block it. In contrast, former military regimes in Argentina, Chile, and Uruguay have been held accountable; some persons received life sentences for their complicity in murder and torture.

After the Second World War, there was widespread acknowledgment in Germany of the atrocities of its Nazi past. Investigations and large-scale education programs were implemented to confront the past, opening the way for a free and vibrant future. Confronting the past is part of moving forward.

The question is whether the U.S. is ever going to be ready to confront its past. This is a question for white Americans, whose ancestors were the primary actors in violence and degradation, land theft and cultural destruction, major features of U.S. history. In part, it is also a question for American Indians and African-Americans, whose ancestors were the primary victims in this history.

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One can understand the reluctance of whites to confront the history that has privileged them; it is harder to understand the reluctance of some Indians and Blacks, but it may be that the reason for declining to confront the past is to not 'rock the boat.' This is perhaps a basic human desire: to put up with things as they are, no matter how unjust, because of fear that things could be worse. The American Declaration of Independence acknowledges this phenomenon, when it states that "mankind are more disposed to suffer, while evils are sufferable, than to right themselves by abolishing the forms to which they are accustomed." The deeper issue is whether the "evils" of U.S. history continue to be "sufferable."

Enslavement of black people on one hand and genocide against red people on the other are actually the foundational 'building blocks' of the 'American Empire': the United States as we know it is built on a foundation of slave labor and Indian land. Is it possible that the current condition of the U.S., with its political gridlock and economic implosion, is actually a result of the historical "evils" at the foundation—that the bloody past is poisoning the present? Is it possible that the only way forward to a free, functioning society is to face the ghosts of the past? In that case, Russia is not the only country whose failure to confront its past threatens to strangle its future.

Let us be clear here: 'confronting the past' means more than just looking back. It means standing in the present and looking in both directions: how we got here and where we want to go. Acknowledging the evils of the past means both to admit them and to root them out of our present, so that our future may grow from something new. Historical evils are not simply bad actions that happened in the past; they are bad actions with continuing bad effects. Treaty violations and land thefts, for example, occurred in the past, but the legal theories that were used to justify these actions—like the doctrine of 'Christian Discovery'—are still part of federal Indian law. The violations continue in the present.

The necessary confrontation with the past is not likely to come from the Obama administration. This is the administration that promised "change" in other areas and didn't deliver. Not surprisingly, its failure to produce change was preceded by its refusal to confront the past—the past of torture and rendition, the past of corrupt bankster rip-offs, the past of fraudulent wars.

How can a person or a nation change without looking at what needs to be changed? The price of failure to confront the past is failure in the future.

Peter d’Errico graduated from Yale Law School in 1968. Staff attorney in Dinebeiina Nahiilna Be Agaditahe Navajo Legal Services, 1968-1970. Taught Legal Studies at University of Massachusetts, Amherst, 1970-2002. Consulting attorney on indigenous issues.