This Friday is Sorry Day in Australia. Though it has antecedents in aboriginal protest and commemoration, Sorry Day has taken place every May 26 since 1998. It followed in its current form from a May 1997 report by the Australian Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission called Bringing them Home, which acknowledged that “Indigenous children have been forcibly separated from their families and communities since the very first days of the European occupation of Australia.” That report was tabled twenty years ago this year. Children in Australia’s boarding schools experienced physical and sexual abuse. They received little education of value. The Australian government admits that now.
In February of 2008, then-Prime Minister Kevin Rudd issued a formal apology. You can watch his powerful statement here. He spoke of the brutality of Australia’s historic treatment of its indigenous neighbors.
Until we fully confront that truth, there will always be a shadow hanging over us and our future as a fully united and fully reconciled people.
It is time to reconcile. It is time to recognise the injustices of the past. It is time to say sorry. It is time to move forward together.
To the stolen generations, I say the following: as Prime Minister of Australia, I am sorry.
On behalf of the government of Australia, I am sorry.
On behalf of the parliament of Australia, I am sorry.
I offer you this apology without qualification.
We apologise for the hurt, the pain and suffering that we, the parliament, have caused you by the laws that previous parliaments have enacted.
We apologise for the indignity, the degradation and the humiliation these laws embodied.
We offer this apology to the mothers, the fathers, the brothers, the sisters, the families and the communities whose lives were ripped apart by the actions of successive governments under successive parliaments.
In making this apology, I would also like to speak personally to the members of the stolen generations and their families: to those here today, so many of you; to those listening across the nation – from Yuendumu, in the central west of the Northern Territory, to Yabara, in North Queensland, and to Pitjantjatjara in South Australia.
I know that, in offering this apology on behalf of the government and the parliament, there is nothing I can say today that can take away the pain you have suffered personally.
Whatever words I speak today, I cannot undo that.
Words alone are not that powerful; grief is a very personal thing.
I ask those non-indigenous Australians listening today who may not fully understand why what we are doing is so important to imagine for a moment that this had happened to you.
I say to honourable members here present: imagine if this had happened to us. Imagine the crippling effect. Imagine how hard it would be to forgive.
My proposal is this: if the apology we extend today is accepted in the spirit of reconciliation, in which it is offered, we can today resolve together that there be a new beginning for Australia.
And it is to such a new beginning that I believe the nation is now calling us.
Australians are a passionate lot. We are also a very practical lot.
For us, symbolism is important but, unless the great symbolism of reconciliation is accompanied by an even greater substance, it is little more than a clanging gong.
It is not sentiment that makes history; it is our actions that make history.
Rudd’s statement, which is worth reading in its entirety, goes far beyond anything the United States has considered. There is in this country a substantial number of people who do not like to hear about the negative parts of US history. I have heard this sentiment a lot over the years, and it takes different forms: discussion of the negative parts of American history is unpatriotic, or demoralizing, or depressing; telling these stories might come at the expense of telling more positive and uplifting stories that could bring young people to respect and revere American institutions; or, occasionally, telling the stories of those individuals and groups who have fallen by the wayside or who suffered as a result of American progress somehow diminishes the dominant narrative and those white people who populate and benefit from it. These reactionary forces are powerful. Those who bring these stories up can expect to be criticized severely, to have their integrity and their objectivity as scholars questioned, or to be dismissed with that empty-headed epithet that their work is “politically correct.” I saw this first hand when I taught in Montana at the beginning of my career in the 1990s. Speaking out on these issues, it turned out, nearly cost me my job.
Sorry Day in Australia is a limited response. It does not go as far as the guys in the Australian rock band Midnight Oil wanted to go when they called upon their fans, in “Beds are Burning,” to return the land to its original owners.
Sorry Day does not pretend to fix every problem. But it does open up a discussion, a day when the government of Australia encourages its citizens to reflect upon what it has done, even in the relatively recent past, to Aboriginal Australians. That is more than the United States has done.
Canada, too, despite continuing problems with First Nations youth in provincial institutions, despite the large numbers of missing indigenous women, and the deep structural problems that gave rise to the Idle No More movement, has undertaken efforts to talk about its painful past. I have mentioned on this blog the National Centre for Truth and Reconciliation housed in Manitoba: it is a marvelous project that might equip Canadians to tell the story of Canada’s residential schools, the young people taken by law and by the authorities from their families to be educated, and the consequences and legacies of these wrong-headed and evil policies.
In the United States, in places, there are efforts to begin an accounting for the nation’s past misdeeds. Confederate memorials are coming down, a long-over due policy beautifully defended by New Orleans mayor Mitch Landrieu. Some buildings, on some college campuses, named after racist and cruel figures from the American past, are being renamed, though not without controversy. Some universities with ties to the slave trade, like Brown and Georgetown, have undertaken programs to atone for their sins.
But when it comes to native peoples, we are way behind Canada and Australia. Small gestures, no doubt, are taking place: some members of some religious congregations have pushed their churches to renounce the so-called “doctrine of discovery,” a symbolic gesture that in the end would cost these churches little. More real, perhaps, was the recent decision by the Society of Jesus to return land given to it by the United States on the Rosebud Reservation to the community. But a larger accounting has not occurred.
And without such an accounting, young people can only with great difficulty arrive at an understanding of the moral complexities of their nation’s past. We need more than an apology, couched in legalese, that nobody knows about. I have mentioned the congressional apology on this blog. You can read it here, and see how truly deficient a document it is. It is as if a Senate staffer went through an American history textbook, found the points where bad things happened to native peoples, and cobbled them together into a tepid and half-baked statement of regret. We are sorry, but want it understood that nothing in this apology opens us up to suit.
The resources to write and teach this history are out there, and contrary to what you might have been taught, native voices are not hard to find in the historical record. In the Agency records housed at the National Archives, for instance, hundreds and hundreds of reels of microfilm, each containing hundreds of pages of documents, allow committed researchers to reconstruct the government’s systematic programs to incarcerate native peoples on reservations, Christianize and civilize them, and take their land, all in the name of “Progress.” Scattered around the country in state, local, and organizational archives are the historical documents that reveal the herculean efforts of native peoples to survive these policies. In these records are the stories of native peoples who lived their lives under this oppressive regime. Their stories are worth talking about. Obviously if I did not believe this very strongly I never would have written Native America. We need to know these stories, for without comprehending the damage done we can hardly understand that for which we apologize.
On the last day of class in my Native American survey course, I talk about apologizing for the past. I mention the periodic calls for an apology for slavery, or the efforts of the Reagan administration to accept responsibility on behalf of the American people for the policy of “internment” during the Second World War. I ask, “What about native peoples?” Does the United States owe native peoples an apology? I play them a video of Rudd’s apology and I might have them look at the American apology resolution. Are these actions adequate? If not, what more might be done? Has so much historical damage been done that nothing can set things right?
You can imagine the student responses. We (they readily identify themselves with the government still) will get sued, or when will it end, they ask. They worry of an ill-defined slippery slope. I had nothing to do with it, some might say, for my family came to the United States long after all of this history had occurred.
I try not to say too much. I try to let the conversation evolve. If there is a lag, I mention some of the stories I have told them over the course of the semester. I do not talk about the larger processes of dispossession or colonialism, but smaller stories, about individuals and local groups. Don’t these stories cause you to feel sorrow? Regret?
We do not apologize well, I tell them. I will mention whatever celebrity is in the news who said something that he or she regretted, followed by a “I’m sorry if anyone was offended.” No, I will point out. It would have been better for this person to have said, “I’m sorry that my words hurt you.” And if the government does not owe native peoples an apology, I ask the students, “Do you?”
It is time for us to pull these records together. The National Archives does a lot. Archivists across the country do great work, and digitization projects are underway all over the place. But these institutions need resources (Yes, I know about the Trump administration’s draconian budget proposal). Let’s start compiling the material to tell this story comprehensively. It is time for an accounting. Look, as I mentioned in an earlier post, at the ground beneath your feet. It does not diminish us in any way to admit that non-Indian citizens of the United States have prospered because their ancestors made native peoples suffer. It is the truth. We need to confront it.