A Tale of Two Countries

It is rare that indigenous peoples have the opportunity to celebrate the actions of governments. On February 13, one of those rare historical moments took place in Australia. Newly elected Prime Minister Kevin Rudd opened his first session of Parliament with an apology to the indigenous peoples of Australia:

To the stolen generations, I say the following: as Prime Minister of Australia, I am sorry. On behalf of the government of Australia, I am sorry. On behalf of the parliament of Australia, I am sorry. I offer you this apology without qualification. We apologise for the hurt, the pain and suffering that we, the parliament, have caused you by the laws that previous parliaments have enacted. We apologise for the indignity, the degradation and the humiliation these laws embodied. We offer this apology to the mothers, the fathers, the brothers, the sisters, the families and the communities whose lives were ripped apart by the actions of successive governments under successive parliaments.

You can listen to the exceptionally eloquent and impassioned speech, in its entirety here.  And, you can read a synopsis of the history and speech excerpts here.    The conditions for which the Prime Minister apologized are not Australian oddities, they are mirrored across the ocean in a land called the United States.

Two British colonies (actually Canada and New Zealand could be included in this tale as well but we will stick with a tale of two countries), inherited the racial frame and eradication policies of the British Empire. Two sets of “freedom” loving white populations threw off the yoke of British power from their own necks and created democratic governments, the United States in 1776 and Australia in 1901. Two sets of founding fathers continued policies that dispossessed indigenous peoples of their land and culture. Both formed policies to eradicate the indigenous peoples or assimilate them. These policies were designed to eradicate religious practices, languages, land claims, natural resources, and indigenous peoples themselves. As a final solution, the future was stolen as well. Children were forcibly removed from their families and sent to be raised in church missions. Rudd chronicles the Austalian genocidal legacy:

But should there still be doubts as to why we must now act, let the parliament reflect for a moment on the following facts: that, between 1910 and 1970, between 10 and 30 per cent of Indigenous children were forcibly taken from their mothers and fathers; that, as a result, up to 50,000 children were forcibly taken from their families; that this was the product of the deliberate, calculated policies of the state as reflected in the explicit powers given to them under statute…

The American numbers are significantly larger no matter which of the dozens of estimates one chooses to use. The following from Wikipedia :

An Indian boarding school refers to one of many schools that were established in the United States during the late 19th century to educate Native American youths according to Euro-American standards. These schools were primarily run by missionaries. It has been documented that they were traumatic to many of children who attended them, as they were forbidden to speak their native languages, taught Christianity instead of their native religions and in numerous other ways forced to abandon their Indian identity and adopt European-American culture. There are also documented cases of sexual, physical and mental abuses occurring at these schools.

Attendance in Indian boarding schools generally grew throughout the first half of the 20th century and doubled in the 1960s . Enrollment reached its highest point in the 1970s. In 1973, 60,000 American Indian children are estimated to have been enrolled in an Indian boarding school. From 1879 to the present day, hundreds of thousands of American Indians are estimated to have attended an Indian boarding school.
In 1973 alone, there were more indigenous children in boarding schools in the United States than in the entire time for which Prime Minister Rudd issues his apology in Australia. In discussing the Australian situation, Rudd notes that “the 1970’s is not exactly a point in remote antiquity.”

The apology does not offer reparation and indeed concedes that none could be adequate. It does not fix the problems of Australian unjust enrichment policies or indigenous unjust impoverishment realities. Rudd points out the “obscenity” of an indigenous infant mortality rate of 4 times the national average. Recall a recent post where we discuss a U.S. indigenous infant mortality rate of 3 times the national average and the promised veto by President Bush of funds to alleviate the problem. (See The Genocide that Never Ends). In Australia infanticide is obscene, in America it is unnoticed. Rudd’s apology though intensely symbolic is much more. He discusses the historical policy of denial and objectification of indigenous peoples:

…a view that, instead, we should look for any pretext to push this great wrong to one side, to leave it languishing with the historians, the academics and the cultural warriors, as if the stolen generations are little more than an interesting sociological phenomenon. But the stolen generations are not intellectual curiosities. They are human beings, human beings who have been damaged deeply by the decisions of parliaments and governments. But, as of today, the time for denial, the time for delay, has at last come to an end.

At least in Australia it has come to an end. Bravo, Minister Rudd, Bravo. In the United States, it has not even come to the radar screen. Some have suggested that a petition drive in the United States to ask for an apology to indigenous peoples in the wake of the Australian example might be a way to bring the subject to the table. What do you think?  Should the U.S. apologize to indigenous peoples here?  Drop a comment.

~ Shari Valentine
PhD Candidate, Sociology Department
Texas A&M University