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Senate Apology to Native People—A Good First Step

The apology to Native people passed by the Senate last week is a step towards reconciliation. But on this Columbus Day, let's be clear that an apology must be followed by action.

Sarah van Gelder

It's hard for a country to change its founding mythology, but the U.S. Senate has taken an important step towards accomplishing that. The Senate approved an apology to Native Americans on October 7, as an amendment to the Defense Appropriations bill. The Senate also passed an apology resolution in 2008, but it has yet to be signed into law.

The resolution commends Native people for protecting and stewarding the land for thousands of years. It's an official rejection of the myth that European explorers "discovered" a pristine wilderness, with a few bands of nomadic tribes wandering about living off the fat of the land.

The Europeans told themselves they were a civilizing force, bringing religion and education to uncivilized people, even while they forced Native people from their land, enslaved them, and killed thousands--some intentionally and some through the spread of disease. The Senate resolution apologizes "for the many instances of violence, maltreatment, and neglect" and expresses regret for the "former wrongs."


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An apology isn't enough. The resolution makes clear that it does not authorize any claims against the United States--in other words, no reparations are offered. While it acknowledges past wrongs, it does nothing to address current wrongs. And it offers no support for those still recovering from being forced to attend abuse-ridden boarding schools or those subjected to some of the highest rates of violence and poor health in the U.S. In a guest column in Indian Country Today, Kevin Abourezk, Rosebud Lakota, says, "Pass the Indian health bill, and then we'll talk." 

On the other hand, a step towards changing our founding mythology is no small accomplishment. Many well-meaning people believe we should forget about past wrongs and just get along. But we can't get there without building a foundation that acknowledges the harms done in the building of our country, tells the truth about our present, and commits to doing right in the future. The resolution is just a start at what needs doing, and it still must be passed by the House. Most importantly, to keep it from being yet another empty statement, it must be followed by action.

Sarah van Gelder is YES! Magazine co-founder and executive editor.

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