Sorry Seems to be the Hardest Word

This item got my attention as I caught up with my news/blog reading this afternoon. Apparently, some Senators are considering an official apology to Native Aemricans for … well … everything.

A U.S. senator on Wednesday urged a Senate committee to pass a resolution apologizing on behalf of the United States to American Indians for centuries of massacres, broken promises and other injustices.

Indian leaders at the hearing said they would need more than an apology to overcome the poverty, substance abuse and health care problems that many of their people face.

The United States has never formally apologized for its treatment of the indigenous people who were living here before European settlement began.

Sen. Sam Brownback (news, bio, voting record), a Kansas Republican who is spearheading the apology resolution, told the Senate Committee on Indian Affairs it would be a first step toward healing deep wounds.

“Before reconciliation, there must be recognition and repentance,” he said. “It begins the effort of reconciliation by recognizing past wrongs and repenting for them.”

The word “genocide” springs to mind. And before anyone jumps all over me for bringing up the “g word,” the reason it comes to mind is because of something I saw when the hubby and I visited the National Museum of the American Indian a month or so ago. As I walked through the museum, looked at the exhibits, and read the information, I began to feel more like I was visiting a memorial of sorts. Then I saw a sign with one of the exhibits, saying that approximately 20 million Native Americans died as a result of “the Contact,” and another 10 million perished of disease and other effects that came along with “the Contact.”

As we were leaving, the hubby said “You know, that almost seemed like…” I finished his sentence for him “A holocaust musuem?” He agreed. And it did have that feeling about it.

So, now the U.S. might apologize for all that. It’s hard to think about that without thinking of another apology that might be long overdue. The last time apologizing for slavery, etc., was brought up, Newt Gingrich was Speaker of the House. He didn’t think it was such a good idea. In fact, he seemed to think that the U.S. had already done more than enough to “make up for” slavery. Gingrich called it “emotional symbolism” and never allowed the matter to come to the floor of the House for a vote. In fact, he stopped just shy of saying that we were better off for it because it made us Americans.

At least that’s my interpretation of what he said, which I wrote off as simple bigotry at the time. It’s an attitude I’ve run into before. When I was in college, I actually had a classmate tell me in so many words that I was better off because of slavery and because my ancestors were slaves, because that was the cause of my being born in this country and being an American. He reasoned that I’m better off here than I would be in Africa right now, but his analysis stopped just short of questioning whether Africans might be better off now if Europeans had stayed the hell home centuries ago, and they hadn’t had to endure the various ill effects and outright barbarism of colonialism or its aftermath. I think it’s a question of what’s meant by “better off” and what assumptions are made about what groups of people may or may not have been able to achieve if left alone.

(For examples of what colonialism meant for indigenous people, I recommend Rivers of Blood, Rivers of Gold: Europe’s Conquest of Indigenous Peoples. For a fictionalized account of a world without Europeans, I recommend Kim Stanley Robinson’s alternative history, The Years of Rice and Salt.)

It will be interesting to see how this apology to Native Americans fares, and if it ultimately suffers the same fate as the notion of apologizing to African Americans for slavery and its ill effects. It’s just my opinion (as is everything on this blog) that ‘sorry” is just a hard word for Westerners in general, and Americans specifically, to say. In particular, Americans seem to have such a deep need to believe in their own goodness, that apologizing for real wrongs seems to be admitting too much. We’d rather believe that the alleged goodness and purity of our intentions, and the relative progress made since the transgressions in question, are sufficient and no further consideration is required; not to mention an apology.

But sometimes an apology is more than emotional symbolism if sincere, whether it’s between individuals or nations. It’s an acknowledgement of wrongs done and experienced. It can also include an implicit promise to do better next time. Maybe that’s the rub.

Anyway, I always thought being an American meant never having to say you’re sorry.

About Terrance

Black. Gay. Father. Buddhist. Vegetarian. Liberal.
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5 Responses to Sorry Seems to be the Hardest Word

  1. Nio says:

    I’m not sure that sorry is enough. Shouldn’t more be “done” to prove how “sorry” we are?

    Our school systems should start with comprehensive education programs that show how aweful European-American’s dismantlement of culture, land, and rights of American Indians, African-Americans and anyone else we’ve come into contact with were; how our ancestors raped, pillaged, terrorized, and brutalized most of the world for their own economic gain. Then we could end discrimination and poverty. We could enact universal health care and education. There are all kinds of things we could “do” that would prove our shame and embarrassment instead of standing up and saying “sorry.”

    If we were truely sorry, I think one persyn standing up in front of TV saying so is merely a baby step in proving that we are, in fact, sorry.

    And to be honest, I’m not sure how white people are sorry. Most that I know aren’t.


  2. Cathi says:

    Saying ‘sorry’ is not enough–but it sure would be a good place to start. Even just the emotional symbolism factor would go a long way, I think, in balancing our overall view that our society is this shining light on a hill for other people to follow. If the government apologized it would then at least have to acknowledge the slaughter that was carried out instead of how it is whitewashed in our history books, now. I agree that most white people aren’t sorry, but I also think that most white people have no idea what really happened.

    As for books on this, I would also recommend Howard Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States.

    I think the same about apologizing for slavery–no, it wont’ come close to righting the wrong and I am not sure what could–but that doesn’t mean it would be a worthless exercise.

    For people out there who would use that to say, ‘Hey, we apologized’ and think that should be the end of it…well, I don’t think there’s any reasoning with that lack of logic anyway.

  3. Heather says:

    A person apologizing to me today for something that his ancestors did to my ancestors would mean nothing to me. I’d probably interpret it as manipulation meant to get rid of any guilt he had and make him feel better about himself. It would do nothing for me. Especially considering that he would be apologizing for an ancestor who I know never considered apologizing himself.

  4. Nio says:

    Actions speak louder than words, me thinks, but maybe Cathi, you’re right: it’s a start. And it should be followed up by a comprehensive plan, already put into action, that shows the apology is real.

  5. Tim Who? says:

    Rather than apologize wouldn’t it be a better move to give history books to student that accurately taught history. And I don’t mean white man’s glossed over version. I mean the TRUTH.

    Wouldn’t society be served better if our children were taught the truth? Wouldn’t the younger generation have a better understanding of the current state of racial, cultural and religious ‘misunderstandings’ if they fully understood the treatment of Native Americans, African Americans and Homosexuals and many other non-white, non-conforming groups through out history.

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