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Wednesday, June 15, 2016

June 15, 2016: ApologyStudying: Apologies to Native Americans

[Inspired by two recent events about which I wrote on Monday, a series on the complex question of whether and how America should apologize for historic wrongs. Leading up to a special weekend post where I’ll share some broader thoughts and for which I’m not at all sorry to ask for your contributions as well!]
Two official apologies for the oppression of Native Americans, and the distance we have yet to go.
1)      1993 Congressional resolution on Hawaii: On the 100th anniversary of the illegal occupation and overthrow of the Kingdom of Hawaii, Congress passed a Joint Resolution acknowledging and apologizing for those historic wrongs. Compared to the Civil Liberties Act about which I wrote yesterday, this resolution was explicitly and entirely toothless, ending with the following Disclaimer: “Nothing in this Joint Resolution is intended to serve as a settlement of any claims against the United States.” Yet that weak conclusion notwithstanding, the resolution does include an impressively detailed account of the many stages through which the U.S. government and its coroporate allies had oppressed, mistreated, and robbed the Native Hawaiians and their sovereign leader Queen Liliuokalani. No one who reads the resolution could fail to understand quite precisely the wrongs done to the queen and her people, nor (I believe) fail to recognize what we collectively owe to this native community.
2)      2010 Apology to native peoples: Section 8113 of the typically gargantuan 2010 Department of Defense Appropriations Act comprised a striking “Apology to native peoples of the United States.” The product of nearly a decade of bipartisan work, this ironically located apology, like the 1993 Joint Resolution, ends with a disclaimer that “Nothing in this section authorizes or supports any claim against the United States” (what the military would call a CYA moment). Covering a much broader range of histories and communites than the 93 resolution, this 2010 apology nonetheless does manage to be impressively layered, both in its apologies for “official depredations, ill-conceived policies, and the breaking of covenants,” as well as “many instances of violence, maltreatment, and neglect,” and in its “commitment to move toward a brighter future where all the people of this land live reconciled as brothers and sisters, … in order to bring healing to this land.” Hard to disagree with any of that!
3)      And yet: Compared to the time-limited history of Japanese internment, our national mistreatments and oppressions of Native Americans extend literally back to the origin points of post-contact America and forward into our own moment. Both the resolution and the apology note the continued resonances and effects of these histories, but both—by expressly forbidding the possibility of reparations and by taking no specific actions beyond the apologies themselves—do not in any way offer specific visions of what we can do in the present and future to address those ongoing effects. So while my first instinct for this paragraph was to note the many oppressive and genocidal Native American histories for which we should also apologize—and indeed such apologies could help raise awareness and understanding of those horrific histories—I’d say that this is one instance where we can and must also and especially put our money, our collective resources and efforts, where our apologies have begun to be.
Next ApologyStudying tomorrow,
PS. What do you think? Responses to this topic and/or broader thoughts on American apologies for the weekend post are very welcome!


  1. Nice post, Ben! The appropriations debate was indeed the inglorious aftermath to the Civil Liberties Act. Another important aspect is the presidential apology. I like to show my students the videos of Pres. Clinton's apology about Japanese American confinementand Pres. Reagan's apology about Tuskegee. Very different styles, wording, and staging.

  2. Thanks Heidi! Will add your thoughts to the weekend post.