I was speaking with my Nez Perce friend, Ron Holt, on Saturday about the apology offered to the Aborigines of Australia by Prime Minister Kevin Rudd. "What good is that going to do for the Aborigine people?" Holt said. And he has a legitimate point.
Eighteen years ago, a Lakota newspaper publisher wrote a column about the upcoming 100th anniversary of the massacre at Wounded Knee. Included in that column was a challenge to South Dakota Governor George Mickelson to use that commemorative year to do something totally unprecedented. Why not use this 100th anniversary to proclaim a Year of Reconciliation between Indians and Whites? The newspaper containing that challenge ended up on Mickelson's desk the week it was published.
Gov. Mickelson called that Lakota newspaper publisher and asked him to come to Pierre, the state capitol, to "kick around some ideas on reconciliation." After the meeting Gov. Mickelson introduced the proclamation to make 1990 The Year of Reconciliation and it was passed unanimously by the South Dakota legislators.
The Year of Reconciliation was not necessarily an apology to the Lakota, Dakota and Nakota citizens of South Dakota. It was instead an effort to open an arena of communications between whites and Indians and by this method, bring about a better understanding between the two races. The Proclamation of Reconciliation was read on the Senate Floor in Washington, D.C., that same year by Senator Tom Daschle (D-SD). Senator Daschle had high hopes of encouraging the other senators from states with large Indian populations to join South Dakota in its efforts to reconcile the differences between Indians and whites. However, this never materialized on a national level.
And now, following close on the heels of the Australian apology to Aborigines, Kansas Senator Sam Brownback (R-Kansas) introduced a resolution as a part of the Native American Health-Care Bill, to formally apologize to Native Americans for the years of government mistreatment and abuse. I might paraphrase my Nez Perce friend, Mr. Holt here: "What good is that going to do for the Indian people?"
Even before it is introduced there is a string attached to the resolution. The resolution is careful to state that it is not meant to authorize or support any claim against the U. S. government or serve as a settlement of any claim. Hmmmm! Isn't it ironic that the same words are attached to the apology to the Aborigine People of Australia?
I brought up the Year of Reconciliation in South Dakota purposely. It harkens back to the comments made by Sen. Hillary Clinton about the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. It is true that King led the marches and did all of the hard, dirty and dangerous work to get action on the Civil Rights Bill. It is also true that it took President Lyndon Johnson to push this bill through Congress. But the Rev. King still stands as the author and the prime mover behind that bill. In South Dakota just the opposite is true about the Year of Reconciliation. Every media outlet in South Dakota always refers to that special Year of Reconciliation as Gov. Mickelson's idea alone. The Lakota newspaper publisher who pushed Mickelson to proclaim 1990 a Year of Reconciliation is forgotten. Most Indian people in the state know who was really responsible for this proclamation, but the state media, a media that was highly criticized by this Lakota newspaper publisher over the years, has chosen to make the Year of Reconciliation, a white idea and project. The Lakota people are once again pushed into the background out of sight and out of mind.
The Australian apology is aimed at the "stolen generations," the thousands of Aboriginal children who were taken from their parents and placed into boarding schools in order to "breed out the color" according to Cecil Cook, a man designated as the chief protector of the Aborigines. Perhaps, in the apology attached to the Health-Care Bill, Sen. Brownback should also add an apology to the "stolen generations" of American Indian children subjected to the same methods of cultural genocide as the Aborigine children.
At this stage of the development of the Native American society, an apology is probably meaningless. I think "justice" would be more appropriate than "apology."
Reconciliation in South Dakota ended with the death of Gov. George Mickelson in a plane crash and it also died because the governor's replacement refused to allow the Lakota newspaper publisher who originated the idea to continue the efforts on behalf of Mickelson and of South Dakota. After all, reconciliation was a "white idea." Oh yes, I was that Lakota newspaper publisher who came up with the idea of "Reconciliation."
The previous government in Australia under Prime Minister John Howard refused to apologize because it did not feel responsible for the misdeeds of past administrations and also because it feared that an apology would lead to enormous compensation claims.
So that brings us back full circle: "What good is an apology going to do for the Native American people?" If our experience with "reconciliation" is any reminder, the answer to that question is "Not much."