Considering Reconciliation

I had the great pleasure of hosting an Australian house guest this past week, and enjoyed many interesting conversations about the comparative U.S.-Australian approaches to race, discrimination and reconciliation. I learned a great deal and these conversations really made me want to learn more about the Australian context. One area of discussion that came up frequently this past week was the treatment of indigenous peoples by the Australian and U.S. governments, and the recent apology (Februrary, 2008) by Prime Minister Kevin Rudd to the indigenous peoples of Australia. The short video (3:56) is quite compelling and an exemplar of what a proper apology for government oppression might look like:

While there have been a handful of limited, case-by-case apologies by U.S. government officials for various misdeeds mostly related to slavery (there’s a nice run down of this history here and more here), there has never been any sort of an apology to our indigenous peoples, Native Americans, on the scale of Prime Minister Rudd’s recent actions. However, Senator Sam Brownback (R-Kan) has proposed legislation that would officially apologize to Native Americans for centuries of brutal mistreatment and oppression, but that legislation has so far failed to pass.

In comparing notes between the U.S. and Australian approaches, I quizzed our guest about what made reconciliation possible in her home country and she interrogated me on why there’s been so little attempt to redress the abysmal treatment of Native Americans here. In Australia, there’s been a sustained effort over several decades among indigenous people (who make up about 4% of the total population) and non-indigenous people working on their own and in coalition across groups, to bring about reconciliation. Here, the sustained efforts by the U.S. government to annihilate indigenous people through slavery, brutal military force, disease, confinement on reservations, forced cultural assimilation, outlawing of native languages and culture, termination policies, and now crushing poverty and disease rates on reservations, have worked together in an orchestrated genocide of Native Americans, so that they now make up only 1.5% of the total population. And, attempts at resistance by Native Americans such as the American Indian Movement (AIM), have once again been met with brutal military force and lifelong imprisonment for activists, such as Leonard Peltier. Today, there’s little or no acknowledgment of the oppression, indeed annihilation, of Native Americans in the U.S. and no movement (beyond AIM) working on justice for these indigenous peoples. In fact, there’s still an ongoing struggle around just getting rid of Native American mascots for sports teams, let alone addressing the trail of broken treaties with Native peoples.

So, in reflecting on reconciliation in Australia and considering what might be required for real, meaningful reconciliation in the U.S., there are some necessary, but not sufficient, requirements before we can get to reconciliation. The first, and to my mind, most important requirements are that there’s an acknowledgment that these injustices occurred in the past, that the discrimination and inequality persists into the present, and that the U.S. government has been – by design – a primary agent in the atrocities. Right now, many of us in the States are swept up in the giddy anticipation of the Obama presidency, and some people want to suggest that this is the dawning of a new age of “post-racial” society. Yet, this seems like an approach that runs away from acknowledging the stark realities of racial and ethnic annihilation that has formed the basis of the U.S. While that may be comforting fiction to some, it’s not the path to reconciliation.