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.


  1. Chris

    Id like to comment on this. Please don’t be too enthused about what Australia has done for its indigenous poulation. I am in New Zealand (next door to Australia) and have lived in many parts of Australia. I can tell you without reservation the Aboriginal population is treated far worse by Australia (as a whole) than Native Americans. Kevin Rudd has made a token gesture that has been demanded. It is a good start but having lived amongst Aboriginals I can tell you it is far from reconcilled. Very little attempts have been made to give back land taken from them, education and healthcare is almost non existent amongst much of their population and the government uses military force to round them up and vurfew them in many places 9like livestock) I have witnessed this! In NZ while we have many issues ourselves we are far further down the track than Australia of reconciling with our native people (the Maori) , we have a well worked treaty commission that so far has given back over 10% of NZ’s land to the Maori and Billions in compensation (we are only 4 million popn). Maori are far more integrated into NZ society than Aborignals in Australia, anyone who has visited both places can vouch for that. There are still many issues NZ is a far better model to view here than Australia regards this.

  2. Jessie Author

    Excellent points, Chris and of course, very interested in your perspective given that you’re much closer to and more familiar with the Australian experience than I am. You say that “Kevin Rudd has made a token gesture that has been demanded, and of course, this is true. Yet, also true is the fact that no sitting president in the U.S. has made a similar gesture, however token, and more to the point, there’s no mass movement on the ground here in the U.S. to demand such a gesture. So, as limited as Rudd’s apology is, it’s still more than we’ve done here.

  3. Melissa

    Hmmm, while I think acknowledging the horrible acts and injustices the government inflicted on Native Americans, and an apology would be nice, part of me is always a bit bothered by them. They don’t feel sincere and when they do come, i.e. the cases above apologizing for slavery, it’s always a bit late, isn’t it? The apologies always seem to come long after the people who were directly affected are gone. It’s easy to apologize and admit something was wrong when you didn’t do it and the person it was done to isn’t here anymore.

  4. Shari

    Nice piece Jessie.
    There are more things on the ground than seem apparent to the mainstream. AIM continues its local involvements and the Peltier group is amazing in its breadth and longevity. They continue to fight for FBI files and documents.

    Many of the AIM activists have become more mainstream in their efforts to change the system. Russell Means has an immersion school program and several other activities such as Taking Back Columbus Day. His website is

    Your Obama comments are interesting. I am watching carefully to see what he does with the Interior Department. There is a rumor that Grover, a Pawnee from Oklahoma may actually be in the running. There is a collective held breath among my relatives on the reservation waiting to see if one more President will continue the tradition of genocide.

    A major issue that keeps American Indians out of the policy discussions on race is the fact that they are governed almost exclusively by the Interior Department. Issues of concern to us are under the jurisdiction of the Interior Dept. As part of his midnight dealings, Bush has sent through several regulations that will impact reservation lands.

    A few little known facts:

    98% of all uranium deposits are on indigenous lands
    60% of all energy resources i.e. oil, coal, uranium in this country are on indigenous lands
    50 reservations have been targeted for toxic waste dumps.

    Yet, no one, liberals, conservatives, environmentalists, ever brings the landowners to the table when discussions are happening around these issues. In fact no one even mentions them.

    Indian Health services is an entirely new and depressing issue. Again, all services are regulated through the BIA under the Interior Dept. Highest infant mortality rates in the industrialized world, shortest life spans, highest teenage suicide rates. Indian Health Services estimates that health care falls 1.7 billion below the funding needed for mainstream health services, 160 tribal health care delivery sites are funded at less than 60% of the necessary levels. See Indian Health Services website for verification of numbers.

    Again, nice job raising the consciousness in this corner of the blogosphere. Keep watching the transition to see where they go, if Obama sells us out, you can expect a rant from me 🙂

  5. Shari


    I hear what you are saying, but beg to differ. The people who are being affected are alive and dying right now on reservations all across America.

    An apology won’t get you there, but the journey of a thousand miles begins with one step. It is one step.


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