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Public apology to Natives overdue

COLORADO SPRINGS, Colo. – President Barack Obama will be asked – again – for a formal and public apology to Indian country on behalf of the U.S. government for past atrocities, said Don Coyhis, whose White Bison Inc. made a cross-country trek in 2009 fruitlessly seeking such an acknowledgment.

Instead, Coyhis noted, the president issued an “Apology to Native Peoples of the United States” last December that was buried in the Defense Appropriations Act and was “never properly presented to Native Americans and to the American people.”

The apology said, in part, that the U.S. through Congress, “recognizes that there have been years of official depredations, ill-conceived policies, and the breaking of covenants by the federal government regarding Indian tribes.”

Currently, a key purpose of White Bison’s new Boarding School Apology Initiative is to encourage Obama to present the apology of the Appropriations Act “to a Native organization – for example, the National Congress of American Indians – visibly and with adequate media coverage so that all people will know that the government has apologized,” Coyhis said.

The focus of Colorado Springs-based White Bison’s 7,000-mile journey across the nation last year was to visit boarding schools from Oregon through the West and Midwest to New York state and then Washington, D.C. for the hoped-for apology. The boarding school experience remains a focus of the organization’s efforts to get an acknowledgment of past trauma from the government.

A growing body of evidence suggests that the “trauma experienced by Native American children at the schools is largely responsible for the alarming levels of suicides, substance abuse, domestic violence and child sexual abuse in Native American communities.”

Intergenerational trauma that began in some of the 500 U.S.-run boarding schools does not surface until generations later, when it manifests in the physical and social ills, he said.

“The purpose of the (Boarding School Apology Initiative) is to “bring healing to Native peoples as well as to the American nation as a whole,” he said, as Natives “move through the grief of intergenerational trauma that began with the boarding schools and is still alive in individuals, families, communities and Native nations.”

Asked why he felt Obama might offer a public apology this time, Coyhis said there were several reasons, among them that his organization has a “big” strategy that so far has 6,000 signatures of support on an apology petition.

There are international precedents for apologies to the people, he said, citing those of Canada and Australia to their aboriginal inhabitants and an apology by the U.S. State Department to Guatemala for wrongs to the Guatemalan people perpetrated by the U.S. between 1946 and 1948.

Another reason a public apology may be forthcoming is that Obama “has seasoned as a president,” he said, noting that he hopes it will work out because “he’s our best shot at making it happen of all the presidents.”

If an individual is violated, “what helps is an acknowledgment that it did happen. If there’s an acknowledgment that this (atrocities and other harms), it will save years in the healing time.” Coyhis said the White Bison program has the training in place to “handle the grief” if there is an outpouring of collective emotion after a public announcement.

“This is a teaching the elders gave us – it’s recognition, acknowledgment, forgiveness, and change.

“Our last test as Native people may be whether we are able to forgive the unforgivable,” Coyhis has stressed in the past. “If we are able to forgive what happened to us, we can transform our society.”

Coyhis, Mohican, is the founder and president of nonprofit White Bison Inc. which, in turn, has initiated the Wellbriety Movement, a term that denotes grassroots efforts in Native communities to combat intergenerational trauma, substance abuse, and other problems through culturally based programs and practices.