All opposed to Indigenous Rights, say “Sorry”

All opposed to Indigenous Rights, say “Sorry”

Support our journalism. Become a Patron!
March 16, 2008

In the last month, two of the four States that opposed the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous People issued “apology resolutions” for the historical crimes they committed against indigenous people. First it was Australia on February 13th; and then America threw up an apology of it’s own a couple weeks later, on March 1st.

It’s particularly interesting considering how both States continue to utilize the very same policies they claim to be so sorry about. Or perhaps, that’s not why they’re apologizing?

The Australian Apology

Focusing primarily on the “Stolen Generations,” this apology came as the first official act of the recently elected Prime Minister of Australia. It seems to have been relatively well received by indigenous and non-indigenous alike, however it’s been repeatedly stated that any such words must be followed by actions otherwise the apology has no real meaning. Most people are saying the People should be financially compensated; but I for one think a political overhaul is what’s really needed.

As for the apology (video) itself, one couldn’t help but notice the glaring omission of the word GENOCIDE… Adopting Canada’s residential school system, that is precisely what the government committed against the Traditional People of Australia.

It was also impossible to ignore how, before and after the apology, the Government was fully engaged in the “Intervention scheme.” I’m sure you’re familiar with it by now. By all intents and purposes the intervention follows the exact same model used to create the stolen generation.

And did you know the intervention is being presently expanded? WSWS elaborates:

When the Rudd government made a formal apology to the Aboriginal “stolen generations” on February 13, the WSWS warned that all those hailing the apology as a step toward rectifying the historic crimes committed against the indigenous people were carrying out a monstrous deception. We cited the old maxim that when the ruling class apologises for past crimes, it is only in order to better commit those of the present. (See: “Australian federal parliament’s ‘sorry’ resolution: the real agenda”)

On February 27, Indigenous Affairs Minister Jenny Macklin delivered a speech to the National Press Club that confirmed the necessity for that warning. Macklin announced that the two central thrusts of the former Howard government’s police-military intervention against Northern Territory (NT) indigenous townships and camps will be expanded, with slight variations. She outlined plans to extend the “quarantining”, or partial seizure, of welfare payments from the NT to Western Australia, and introduce new means for overturning communal land title to make way for private ownership.

Is this “the new relationship” Rudd was talking about in the sorry speech? If so, then what was the apology if not an epochal farce, perhaps aimed at appeasing the malcontent while lifting the guilt carried by sorry white Australia?

Oops, sorry about that. But I think it’s doubly so (a farce) considering how the logic and intent that carries the intervention–and that fueled the stolen generation–has now become attached to every day Australia. I am now constantly running into reports that talk about the need to take more, stronger measures against indigenous people.

The American Apology

Piggy-backing a health care bill that was approved by the Senate on March 1, the American Apology (pdf) is much the same as the Australian counterpart— though seems to covers a host of different policies (as in ‘deliberately committed atrocities with the expressed intent of committing genocide’) rather than just one.

Shortly after it was approved, Brenda Norrell had an interview with Jimbo Simmons, coordinator of the ongoing 2nd Longest walk . Simmons explained the apology, which practically came out of nowhere,

[… ] is directed at the IRA Indian tribal governments or “puppet governments,” organized under the Indian Reorganization Act, which have caused so much suffering for Indian people.

Simmons said the apology should go to the original treaty signers. His comments were made on the Longest Walk Northern Route’s live broadcast on on Monday morning, March 3.

Simmons pointed out that when the original Longest Walk was making its way across the United States in 1978, a similar diversion was created to diffuse the impact of the walk at that time. Indian representatives came out and told the Long Walkers that their walk was not necessary because the anti-Indian legislation underway would be defeated without their march into Washington.

Now, 30 years later, another effort is underway to diffuse the impact of this Longest Walk.

“The United ‘Snakes’ of America thinks this would be enough for us,” Simmons said. “There are still problems across Indian country. We’re talking much more than just treaty rights.

“It goes beyond human rights and civil rights, we are talking about our natural rights since the beginning of time.

“Our traditional and spiritual leaders have been silenced for so long. The apology should be directed to them.”

Simmons said the IRA Indian tribal governments created by the United States are “puppet governments” which are “victimizing our people.”

“They continue to perpetuate the bureaucracy in Indian country.” [Many also exploit their own People. See for examples]

Regarding the point of the apology being a distraction, that certainly seems to be the case with the Australian Apology as well. And as for the “IRA tribal governments” (which are organized like sub-states within the Westphalian system of States), the fact is the United States Government is doing the exact same thing. Sure, their present-day policies are nowhere near as brutal as they once were, but the fact is they continue to diminish and infringe upon Indigenous Nations and they continue to neglect their treaty obligations ad nauseum.

The International Indian Treaty Council’s Consolidated Indigenous Shadow Report, prepared last January (which the UN Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination recently responded to), provides numerous examples of this. The report mentions situations involving the Goshute, Shoshone, Lakota, Navajo, Winnemmem Wintu, and the Peoples of Puerto Rico, Alaska, and Hawaii, among others. Off the top of my head, I could also add the Penobscot and Passamaquoddy, the Apache, The Onondaga, and the Peoples of Colombia.

As heartfelt as the American Apology maybe, in the face of American policy and practice it is no less than an insult to the millions that were raped, burned, scalped, mutilated and killed en masse for doing nothing wrong.

The Politics of Saying Sorry

According to the Oxford Dictionary of Word Histories, Apologies began in the mid 16th century as a formal legal defense against an accusation. While in some circumstances they are still used like that, an apology has come to have several uses in ‘western’ culture.

We use them to sympathize with others, to express regret, to console our friends for a loss. We use them to take responsibility for doing things we had no control over (like farting or dropping a cup of juice), to absolve ourselves from taking responsibility (like a man who beats his wife), to punish ourselves, to make ourselves feel better, and to a lesser extent, to mark a fundamental change in the way we live.

Sometimes they’re even used to make others feel ashamed, like the Church did in their apology to the Indigenous People of Australia in 2001. ‘Sorry for doing nothing wrong’, it reads (which is as if to say the People should be sorry the Church failed).

Most of us would never methodically plan out or twist an apology like that—nevertheless they almost always serve as devices to control or redirect a moment. This is especially true for political apologies and those issued on behalf of institutions like the Church.

For example, from 1947-onward, Priests in Canada began apologizing for 5 generations of physical, emotional, sexual, spiritual, linguistic and cultural terrorism they and their Churches practiced against Indigenous Children. Some of the apologies were powerful, genuine pleas for forgiveness—but at the same time, many of them read as if they were attempts to absolve the Church. ‘Now let’s just put it all behind us, ok?’

Well I’m sorry, but that’s not gonna happen until all the Churches empirically prove they are not what they were before, during, and after the Residential School Era (which lasted from 1840 to 1970)

To do that, and to get any real sense of forgiveness, the Church must take steps (as outsiders) to replace the historical violence with supportive efforts that help restore the individuals, families, communities, and Nations they disrupted, dispossessed and destroyed. I speak here of Justice.

There are thousands of different things the Church could do—the most important of which would be to leave every single Indigenous Community. I would even go so far as to say all members of any church should be banished from Indigenous lands until they earn the right to return as friends and equals.

This is justice in my eyes. Never mind this financial compensation nonsense because money adds fuel to the fire burning inside Indigenous People because of what Residential Schools did. Why do you think there’s such a big problem with alcohol and substance abuse? Why do you think so many youth today are severely depressed and committing suicide? Why do you think there’s so much poverty and self loathing? Canada is a major part of that, of course, but for those recent 5 generations, the Church was instrumental in advancing Canada’s lofty dream of breaking Indigenous People.

How in the universe is a few thousand bucks going to help with this? Is buying a new tv and a couple pair of socks going to make everything alright? hardly.

When it comes to States, the kind of Justice I speak of must result in no less than policy change. That means altering the way they interact with Indigenous Nations (stopping land encroachment, fulfilling treaty obligations, etc) and making every necessary accommodation to correct history…. This could start, for example, by having every school textbook recalled and replaced with new ones (that indigenous People approve of). I say this especially because violence and subjugation of Indigenous People became a part of Western Culture. It was encouraged, promoted, rewarded, and then made into riveting stories of triumph for sleepy white kids.


Overall, a word cannot undo an action, be it a kick to the chins or a 500-year genocidal assault against a People. An apology can, however, help mark out a framework that can heal us in the present while empowering future generations so they do not augment the ‘mistakes’ of the past.

No Church or State will take steps toward this, so then we are left alone with a word that we can either scathingly reject, or use to help rid ourselves of the burden that’s not ours to carry.

It’s a disappointing truth, but one that echoes far beyond the words “I’m sorry.”

We're fighting for our lives

Indigenous Peoples are putting their bodies on the line and it's our responsibility to make sure you know why. That takes time, expertise and resources - and we're up against a constant tide of misinformation and distorted coverage. By supporting IC you're empowering the kind of journalism we need, at the moment we need it most.

independent uncompromising indigenous
Except where otherwise noted, articles on this website are licensed under a Creative Commons License