An article recently surfaced in Indian Country Today entitled “A Sorry Saga,” in which the author brings attention to the Native American Apology Resolution signed by President Obama on December 19th, as part of a defense appropriation spending bill. While the Resolution had passed as a stand-alone piece of legislation in the Senate, it was attached to and passed with a defense appropriations spending bill within the House before making its way to President Obama. The final version of the resolution shifted from being an official apology from the US government to an apology “on behalf of the people of the United States to all Native peoples for the many instances of violence, maltreatment, and neglect inflicted on Native peoples by citizens of the United States.” The real crux of the Indian Country Today article revolves around the lack of publicity surrounding the apology and asks the question, “Is an apology that’s not said out loud really an apology?”
Prior to this apology, President Obama has been largely lauded for keeping his prior commitments to Indian Country (convening a tribal leaders summit in November to hear concerns; appointing tribal leaders to IHS and Native American Affairs posts; largely maintaining and even, in some cases, increasing funding to Indian Country for this year’s budget). Ironically, it is this hidden apology that has caused some to backpeddle their vocal support for the Obama Administration. I would argue that many may view this obscure and amalgamous apology as a step backward rather than forward as it provides the perfect metaphor for the US’ longstanding nebulous public policy toward American Indian people. The US, throughout the years, has managed to promote a half in half out relationship with Indian Country in which sovereignty is recognized in pieces rather than in whole (as a long-standing continuation of the Western colonial reductionist vein of thought that brought us the Dawes Act, etc). Thus this apology, passed with no public acknowledgement, coming from the “American people” rather than the US government, and with a caveat to ensure that it cannot be construed to allow legal culpability, reeks of this prior paradigm that many in Indian Country counted would change and were hoping was changing with the election of President Obama.
Revisiting Indian Country Today’s question, I would propose what I believe to be a more pertinent question: Is an apology without subsequent action really an apology? A true apology, publicized or not, must be followed by real demonstrable action that marriages sentiments to words, words to policy, and policy to action. I laud this apology as long as it is a step toward such action. A relevant and pressing issue of substance is the current US stance against the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP). In 2007, the US, along with Canada, New Zealand, and Australia, were the only countries to vote against the adoption of the UNDRIP. Australia has since overturned their decision in early 2009 and did so only two months after their official governmental apology to the Aboriginal populations. A true test then of the intent of the Native American Apology Resolution will be if the Obama Administration utilizes this apology as a foothold for reversing the current US position opposing the UNDRIP. Such an adoption would truly demonstrate President Obama’s commitment to and respect for Indian Nations and for creating a new paradigm in which true nation to nation relations can begin.