Tag Archives: Apologies

California’s Apology for its Treatment of Native Peoples

California Governor Gavin Newsom has issued an apology for his state’s historic treatment of native peoples. Because one in eight Americans is a Californian by birth or residence, this is a significant act.

Despite having spent twenty-four of the last twenty-nine years in New York, I still consider myself a Californian. I grew up not far from the Mission San Buenaventura. We traveled almost daily along the route followed by Father Serra as he began his march to establish California’s mission system. At the elementary school I attended we learned a bit about Spanish California. Every time I entered that school parking lot, I passed the mural that you see above, a historic text giving a very biased interpretation of the settlement of Spanish California. We learned in school that their was a series of missions in California, that the missionaries worked hard to establish them, that they were courageous and heroic figures. We learned nothing, however, about native peoples. The junior high schools in town all were named after Spanish explorers. But native peoples simply were not part of the story. The closest any of us got was, perhaps, reading Scott O’Dell’s The Island of the Blue Dolphins or, if we were particularly unfortunate, a staging of the Ramona pageant based upon Helen Hunt Jackson’s dreadful novel. Native Americans, we always were told when I was a kid in the 1970s and 1980s, were all gone.

Governor Newsom has taken an important first step. Apologies alone are seldom enough, but Americans have such a perverse unwillingness to confront their nation’s violent past. You can see this with the reaction to H.R. 40, a proposed piece of legislation that would establish a commission to merely study the possibilities and potential need for reparations for African Americans for centuries of racism. Those of us who teach Native American history are used to receiving a cold response when we suggest repartations (Try it some time. It’s fun! Next time you are at a gathering, try suggesting that the the United States ought to pay reparations to native peoples for the historic injustices they have faced. See how it goes, and report back!).

As Newsom said, what Californians did to Native Americans was a genocide. “No other way to describe it and that’s the way it needs to be described in the history books.” Thanks to the work of historians like Brendan Lindsay and Benjamin Madley, that story is already being told. Newsom’s announcement might have the educational effect of making more Californians aware of their state’s brutal past.

I wrote about California’s native peoples in the second edition of Native America. The entire book is filled with connections to places to which my family and I have connections–the Dakotas in Minnesota, the Crows in Montana, and the Caddos in Texas. And the Chumash in Southern California. I suppose that I am not alone in writing books that, whatever we might say they are about, are at least part of our own story, part of our efforts to make sense of our own past.

Nearly everywhere I speak, I make the point that nearly all white people in North America are the beneficiaries of specific policies like “Indian Removal”, and the larger generalized processes that resulted in Native American dispossession. The states where I have spent most of my time–New York and California–the country and the continent on which I live, could not have developed in the way that they did without a systematic program of Native American dispossession.

Governor Newsom apologized to California’s native peoples. In person. So many of his predecessors, and their supporters, would have exterminated Native Americans if they could have. Any look at the history books makes clear how hard they tried. An apology is a simple gesture that we often make difficult owing to our fears, our pride, or our lack of empathy. Newsom will take some heat for the apology, but the need for it is crystal clear.

The Sins You Forget Can Never Be Forgiven

And the sins you forget, you may commit again.

Are there historical sins that can never be forgiven? Are their historical crimes so great that the guilt can never be washed away?

Last week a story appeared in the New York Times  announcing that the “Holocaust is Fading from Memory.” Many adults, according to a recent survey, “lack basic knowledge of what happened—and this lack of knowledge is more pronounced among millennials, whom the survey defined as people ages 18 to 34.” 41% of Americans, as well as 66% of millennials, had never heard of Auschwitz. And, as Matthew Rozsa pointed out in Salon, it’s not just a Holocaust problem.  Americans of all ages just do not know their history well at all.

I am not willing to fault the young people for that.  Our education system, presided over by the overly-credentialed but unwise and unimaginative adherents of a testing regime, who celebrate STEM fields, who equate positive outcomes with “employability,” and who consistently challenge the relevance and even the necessity of training in the liberal arts and humanities, have done us all a huge disservice.  We know little of where we have been, who we hurt, how we hurt them, who benefited, and how the processes of history have unfolded.  We don’t know what we have done, how, and to whom.  And it seems unlikely that without that knowledge we will ever be able to stop.

There are just a few weeks left in the semester.  At the end of my Indian Law and Public Policy course in a few weeks we will discuss apologies for the historic treatment of America’s peoples.  And in my course on the Early Republic, which I am teaching for the first time in twenty years, we have reached that point in the semester where I am discussing Antebellum slavery and the slave regime in the south.  I like to ask students about apologies for slavery, too, given the horrible brutality of the entire system.

I have been at this a long time, and I can anticipate the answers.  Apologies bring complications.  Lawsuits, for instance.  Or all the exceptions.  My ancestors were not even here back then, and so on.  As a nation, and as individuals, I encounter many people who do not like to second-guess, who are willing to say that the past is in the past and it is time to move on.

But if Americans do not know those histories—of dispossession and colonization in the first instance and enslavement and white supremacy in the second—and if they do not understand the chains binding the past to the present, the likelihood of them understanding what they might apologize for is remote at best. Why do something when you lack the knowledge to understand the problems that exist?

We like villains, for instance. We like to place blame.  Doesn’t take much thought at all. Andrew Jackson was a real bastard, we might point out. But we might also suggest that he was hardly the only person to call for “Indian Removal.”  And he was hardly the only person to benefit.  Those of us who live on what was once native land should know that well. We do not, generally speaking, but we should. To many Americans the injustice that made them who they are remains invisible. I have met many people who sense that there is something off-putting and creepy about President Trump’s fixation with Andrew Jackson, but to ask them to explain why is another matter entirely.

I have been listening to the “Finding Cleo” podcast produced by CBC Radio.  It is a searing story of the legacies of Canada’s brutal decision to carry away 150,000 First Nations children into boarding schools, foster care institutions, and adoptions, in order to assimilate them.  The podcast follows the victimized siblings of one small girl who also fell victim to Canada’s “Sixties Scoop.”  Today is the product of many yesterdays, of many decisions, policies, and actions, the consequences of which whipsaw through time, spreading wreckage as they go.  If your students watch the “The 13th,” they will recognize that slavery is hardly part of the past, that the injustices upon which the South’s “Peculiar Institution” rested are still very much with us.  Incarceration Nation.  Prison reform has received more attention than in the recent past, but the racial disparities in American prison populations quite simply is not a source of concern to many Americans.  We watch our duly elected buffoon preside over the country, and bounce from crisis to crisis, while his trampy kids and corrupt appointees run a smash and grab ring. Important problems, the legacies of our nation’s sins, remain unaddressed, because too many people do not care, and too many people know too little to care.


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.