The United States is Sorry?
by Wendy Gonyea

Native American students at the Hampton Institute in Virginia after two years of separation from their families and teaching that their culture and spirituality were “inferior.” Haudenosaunee students were the second largest group of Indian students at Hampton. The Resolution includes mention of “the forcible removal of Native children from their families to faraway boarding schools where their Native practices and languages were degraded and forbidden.” Photo: To Lead and to Serve: American Indian Education at Hampton Institute 1878-1923. (1989).

It is with skepticism and apprehension that these thoughts are written in response to the Resolution of Apology to Native Peoples of United States (passed by voice vote in the US Senate on February 26, 2008). To begin, many indigenous peoples are sovereign independent Nations-their own entity, surrounded by the United States, so we are not "Native Peoples of United States." One can hardly fault indigenous peoples for questioning the motives of the apology. We wonder: "Is there a catch, are there strings attached to this apology?"

An apology to recognize the deplorable actions taken against millions of indigenous peoples, many whose Nations were wiped out entirely, is a start, a beginning. But it pales considering the magnitude of the horror, theft and genocide against a race thought to be in the way of "progress." An apology may make good press with today's "enlightened minds," or may ease the conscience of a Nation somewhat. Or, it could serve as another issue to polarize citizens and deepen the divide between those who agree with the apology and those who think there is no reason for it.

The apology itself is mere words. If it had specific actions attached to it, it might be significant. For example, the US government was one of only four countries which opposed the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (See February 2008 PNL.) In addition, the resolution concludes with a disclaimer that nothing in the resolution "authorizes or supports any claim against the United States." Meaningful actions could include the return of land, or the return of ancestors and their belongings held in museums and collections.

The Generations to Come
But how do you restore self-esteem, restore identity after a concerted effort for centuries to strip it away? Indigenous youth need to be raised with pride in their heritage, not shame. All children should be taught the truth of United States History, not the fundamental concept that Europeans settled a land of plenty in spite of wild Indians lurking around homesteads. Those old stereotyping history texts are not only outdated, they are wrong.

An apology could include a revamped curriculum so school children in the US wouldn't grow up afraid of, romanticizing, or disliking, even hating indigenous peoples. This new generation of youth unscathed by racism could be free of individual superiority and free to forge ahead making new paths, and making history for the coming generations.

A shared identity of indigenous peoples is our affinity with the land and living with our environment. Our cultures respect the elements that sustain us. This is a natural way of being, and a formidable standard. If US citizens could learn fundamental laws of balance, conservation practices, giving, helping those in need, sharing, respect - the world wouldn't be in such a sorry state today. The youth of this country can benefit from basic teachings that focus on harmony rather than promoting self-aggrandizement.

Conquest, Not "Discovery"
It is commendable that steps are being taken to recognize historical violations, but this has taken 400 years. Too many US citizens continue to accept the patriotic version of the settlement of North America. The apology recognizes we were here when Europeans arrived, but fails to mention the conquest by the Doctrine of Discovery, a centuries old "Christian" law basically saying because we Native peoples were "infidels and heathens" they could take our land. This doctrine continues to sway court decisions against indigenous peoples to this very day! (See the US Supreme Court's Sherrill Decision of 2005.)

The apology itself contains a few misnomers-that we are 'tribes' of peoples. Anyone familiar with Onondaga or the Haudenosaunee know us as Nations-on equal footing. It is also wrong to blindly declare that all Native peoples are spiritual. This would be ideal, but like other societies, impossible. I object to the words "customs and legends" used to describe indigenous peoples in the apology. This is our way of life. This is not a legend or a custom.

Our life is ongoing, day to day, a cycle of carrying on the teachings of our ancestors. Further, it is my understanding the apology is an amendment to an Indian Health Care Improvement Act. So these words are stuck on to another set of words, which may lessen their importance.



Tuesday, April 22, 1-3 pm
Hendricks Chapel, SU
part of SU's MayFest

Lastly, in our way of teaching, the concept of an apology is outside of the realm of acceptable behavior. We don't have an Onondaga word for "sorry." Our elders teach us to treat all life with respect, so that our actions shouldn't give us cause for regret, or to be sorry.

Wendy, a member of the Beaver Clan, is a faithkeeper of the Onondaga Nation and a writer.