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

The Genocide that Never Ends: Bush to Veto Indian Health Services Bill

The headline on the New York Times Editorial on January 28 reads “Vetoing History’s Responsibility.”  The story unfortunately is not about history, but the entirely too current engagements in the 400 year old American Holocaust against American Indians. The latest strategic strike is a Presidential Veto of Indian Health Services Legislation.  Here’s the opening paragraph from the NYTimes editorial:

“President Bush’s threat to veto a bill intended to improve health care for the nation’s American Indians is both cruel and grossly unfair. Five years ago, the United States Commission on Civil Rights examined the government’s centuries-old treaty obligations for the welfare of Native Americans and found Washington spending 50 percent less per capita on their health care than is devoted to felons in prison and the poor on Medicaid.”

The NYTimes piece goes on to make note the fact that:

Studies have established that Native Americans suffer worse than average rates of depression, diabetes and cardiovascular disease. The Senate bill would improve treatment for these problems, as well as address alcohol and substance abuse, and suicide among Indian youth. It would expand scholarship help so more American Indians could pursue careers in health care.

Actually according to Indian Health Service and the National Center for Health Statistics  “worse than average” is a gross understatement.  American Indians have:

  • Infant mortality rate 300% higher than the national average
  • Tuberculosis rates 500% higher than the national average
  • Diabetes 200% higher than the national average
  • Cervical Cancer 170% higher than the national average
  • Maternal death in childbirth 140% higher than the national average
  • Influenza and pneumonia 150% higher than the national average
  • Teenage suicide rates 150% higher than the national average
  • Overall suicide rates 60% higher than the national average

These rates have increased over the rates reported by the IHS in 1996.   Only diabetes has declined and that only slightly.  These are diseases that are highly preventable and treatable, unless you are a Native American held hostage to a centuries old policy of genocide. Native American health expenditures are half as much as that spent on prisoners and Medicaid patients and we are all too familiar with the intolerable health care provided to those groups.

Federal appropriations are the only source of health care funds available to Native Americans. Outside philanthropy is bureaucratically prohibited. Some years ago I worked with an organization that donates medical equipment and supplies to underserved populations. A retiring doctor wanted to donate cutting edge mammogram, catscan and MRI machines as well as some other equipment to serve Native Americans. A national corporation agreed to transport the equipment free of charge and a medical supply company agreed to set it up and service it. The appraised value of the equipment was over 3 million dollars. For months working with then Senator Ben Nighthorse Campbell, we waded through red tape and forms to get permission for the equipment.  In the end, the equipment was sent abroad because the Bureau of Indian Affairs would not approve the $575 necessary to build a pad for the MRI machine and $700 to upgrade a room for the catscan. When we raised the money to pay for these items, we were told that the individual clinics could not accept contributions and the BIA would need more than 9 months to process the contributions and could not guarantee expenditure of the funds on the purpose for which we were raising them.

In spite of the investigation and recommendation of the Civil Rights Commission the President will continue this long tradition. Native Americans have only the Indian Health Service. No amount of public concern or private philanthropy can even be offered to mitigate the health effects of the government’s centuries of racist policy. The American public likes to think that tactics like giving smallpox infested blankets to native people are “history.”  The centuries old oppression and systematic extermination of Native Americans continues and remains invisible to most Americans.    In Germany, Turkey, Sudan, we call that genocide.

For more information about reservation conditions and issues, interested readers can go visit the Tribal Resource Center, Friends of Pine Ridge Reservation, and Russell Means.

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