Editor’s Note: This Part II of a two-part guest commentary. Part I was published on Saturday, January 3, 2015. To read “The Doctrine of Discovery – A Buried Apology and an Empty Chair” in its entirety, go to Reflections from the Hogan.
2009 – Apology to Native Peoples of the United States:
This apology is buried in H.R. 3326, the 2010 Department of Defense Appropriations Act. To this day this apology has not been publically announced, publicized or read by the White House or the US Congress.
Why was the apology to Native peoples buried deep within the 2010 Department of Defense Appropriations Act?
The institutions of this nation have been established on the premise that Native Americans and African Americans are not human. They can be enslaved, their lands can be taken and their populations can destroyed, incarcerated or killed without a trial.
The United States of America is a systemically racist nation.
In 1630, in the colony of Boston, John Winthrop preached a sermon in which he referred to the colony as a “City on a Hill” and reminded them that they must be obedient so God to that “the Lord our God may blesse us in the land whether wee goe to possesse it.” This sermon was the Protestant church in America beginning to internalize and adopt the Doctrine of Discovery. It is the colonies, and later the nation, beginning to see their presence in North America as a God-blessed, even a God-ordained, event out of which comparisons to Old Testament Israel and their journey to a “Promised Land” could be drawn. Over the next hundred years or so this thinking matured into an understanding that not only was this new nation a “City on a Hill” but it also had a “Manifest Destiny” to discover, occupy and rule this continent from “sea to shining sea.”
Today, our leaders and our institutions continue to ease our guilt and massage our egos by telling us, that as a people, as a nation, we are exceptional. Our educational systems may be failing, our infrastructure may be crumbling, our manufactured and genetically modified foods may be killing us, our technology and consumption may be altering our climate, our middle class may be disappearing, we may be torturing our enemies, we may be aborting our babies, and our minority populations may be forced to scream out that “their lives matter.” But, we tell ourselves, “We are exceptional.” “We are good.” “We have a ‘manifest destiny’.” And “The United States of America is still a ‘City on a Hill’.”
As a nation we have to believe that we are exceptional, because if we aren’t, if our history is truly this dark, then that means our nation is merely average. If our nation is not exceptional, then our unjust history of discovery, slavery, genocide, theft, torture and dehumanizing the other is no longer justified. If we are merely average, and our existence is not ordained by God, than we can be held accountable for our actions, both past and present, just like everyone else.
So we bury our apologies, we rewrite our history, and we point to the words of our founding fathers who blindly stated that “we hold these truths to be self-evident that all men are created equal.”
We just don’t tell anyone that, as a people and as a nation, we have an extremely narrow definition of who is actually human.
The United States of America is not rich and powerful because of God’s blessing. We are rich and powerful because we are systemically racist and inherently unjust.
A Truth Commission:
Just over two years ago, on December 19, 2012, I had the privilege of hosting a public reading of the US Apology to Native peoples in front of the US Capitol Building in Washington DC. More than 150 people from throughout the nation traveled, at their own expense, to DC in order to take part in this reading. The Apology was translated into the Navajo and Ojibwe languages. And it was publically read in English, Navajo and Ojibwe.
I spent most of 2012 traveling throughout the United States speaking with leaders from Church denominations and evangelical associations. I delivered letters to members of the House of Representatives and the US Senate. I communicated with the White House and spoke with Governor Sam Brownback (previously Senator Brownback). I visited tribal councils and spoke with tribal leaders. I spoke at educational institutions and with academic leaders. I wrote articles and sent Press Releases to national media outlets and news organizations. But virtually none of these leaders opted to attend and only one national news organization wrote a story regarding the event (CNN – Navajo man wants the nation to hear its official apology).
This experience taught me that the government and institutions of our nation are simply incapable of engaging with this history. The topic is too hot, the liability is too big, and the risks are too great. So that leaves it up to us. You and me. The citizens of the United States of America. Native Americans, African Americans, Americans of European descent, Hispanic Americans, Asian Americans, recent immigrants to this land as well as immigrants whose families established the original colonies.
The institutions of this nation may be systemically racist, but I do not believe a majority of the citizens are. However, in a nation that is systemically racist, anti-racism is less about personal racist attitudes and more about a willingness to change the system. So if our leaders and our institutions are incapable of addressing these issues I would like to invite the American people to address these issues.
I would like to propose that we begin planning a Truth Commission. A series of national conferences to be held throughout the country that would create space and give platform for indigenous elders and peoples to share their stories and let the truth be known about the abuse, trauma and injustice that they endured. Other countries, such as South Africa and Canada, have held Truth and Reconciliation Commissions that were of a similar nature, but the major difference was the governments and institutions of those countries were compelled through litigation or other circumstances to engage in those conversations.
That is not the case here in the United States, and I am hesitant to try and force our government and institutions to participate through lawsuits. For as was demonstrated above, our Declaration of Independence, our Constitution and our Supreme Court are all systemically racist, so in their current form they are incapable of delivering justice regarding these issues.
However, I am also not hopeless regarding our leaders or our institutions, and I would propose that at the Truth Commission gatherings we leave “empty chairs” for the leaders of these governments, organizations and institutions to participate. We leave chairs for President Obama, Pope Francis, state governors and members of Congress. We leave chairs for church denomination heads and leaders of academic institutions. I would even recommend we leave empty chairs for heads of state from other countries that participated in the “discovery” and colonization of this land, such as Spain, England, France and the Netherlands.
Our nations is in agony, and our people are literally crying out in pain. Our history is dark and the path forward is difficult. As a country we need to give up the false notion of our exceptionalism and accept the fact that we are no better than any other nation around the world. We need to remember that this land was not empty and Europeans did not discover it. We need to acknowledge that Africans and African Americans are human and their labor is not free. We need to accept that holidays like Columbus Day are meant to be mourned, not celebrated. We need to own our history, publicize our apologies and accept responsibility for our actions.
Our leaders and our institutions have already demonstrated they are incapable of doing this. So it is up to us. You and me, the citizens of the United States of America, and the indigenous peoples of Turtle Island.
I propose that we host the first conference of this Truth Commission in Washington DC in December of 2016. We will have just elected a new President but, President Obama, the signatory of H.R. 3326 and the initiator of the annual Tribal Nations Conference, will still be in office.
Mark Charles (Navajo) is the founder and director of 5 Small Loaves. He and wife reside in Fort Defiance, Arizona on the Navajo Indian Reservation.