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Opinion
Laverne Beech: Apology to Native peoples long overdue


When President Obama signed into law the 2010 Defense Appropriations Act on December 19, 2009, 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.

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 Col. Richard Pratt, a former military man in the US War Department and founder of the early Indian boarding school system. It makes me wonder too if the inclusion of the apology resolution to Indians in an act authorizing billions in defense spending was more than a mere coincidence.

I read a blog after Halloween telling of a person dressed up as a pilgrim apologizing to a person dressed up as an Indian. Maybe it is as simple as that. I know in my own life that the apologies I’ve received in person are far more meaningful than those I’ve received by letter or email.

I have also grown to understand that true healing lies in not waiting for the person who committed wrongs against you to apologize, but to forgive and love them anyway.

About the same time as the apology resolution was signed into law my brother passed away after a long illness. We had not spoken for a few years because of some wrongs I felt he committed and, as a result, his obituary did not make mention of me as his sister. While that hurt my feelings at first, I had also come to realize that the lesson was for me to personally forgive him regardless of whether I received an apology or not.

We all know people in our lives who have never forgiven themselves or someone else in their lives for past wrongs. Our Native communities as a whole have not forgiven this country for what it did to our people and, as a result, we continue to see the consequences of our collective anger and hurt showing itself in epidemic suicides, substance abuse and violence among our friends and relations.

“To heal from this affliction, you have to ask for forgiveness and recognize and understand the historical trauma. That doesn’t mean you live in the past, but you remember it. And you have to acknowledge it in order to move on,” says Robert DesJarlait, Ojibwe cultural educator and writer.

Last May, the non-profit organization White Bison undertook a 40-day, 6800-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 our communities today.

The journey came one year after the prime ministers of both Canada and Australia verbally apologized for imposing the US boarding school model on the Native peoples there. It was emotional to watch via Internet the reaction of Native people on 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.

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 on June 24. Unfortunately, despite repeated invites, no one from the White House was there to accept the petition.

Undeterred, White Bison commented on its website 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 both 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.

Many of those who support a national apology have witnessed the importance of forgiveness in their own recovery journeys, and have come out the other side hopeful that our country’s leaders will see the value of making amends to the First Americans in order to heal the deep racial wounds of this country.

We are certainly not the first county 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 both the past and future generations to heal from the scars of the early Indian boarding schools on our nation’s history. We call upon President Obama to support us on this healing journey by breathing life on the idle national apology resolution words.

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

2010 Defense Appropriations Act:
Bill Text | H.R.3326

Apology Resolution:
H.J.Res.46 | S.J.Res.14

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