Sunday, June 22, 2008

Tipping My Cap to Tom Cole: Why Apologies Matter

This from Politico's John Bresnahan:

Rep. Tom Cole, a Chickasaw Indian, is pushing for an apology from Congress to Native Americans on behalf of the United States for centuries of mistreatment.

Cole offered his proposed apology as an amendment to H.R. 1328, the "Indian Health Care Improvement Act Amendments of 2007." That multibillion-dollar proposal, introduced by Rep. Frank Pallone Jr. (D-N.J.) and 57 other members, has not been scheduled for a vote yet.

I will reprint the entire amendment here because it's a fascinating, and noteworthy, proposal. I will point out that Cole specifically states that nothing in the amendment authorizes reparations to Native Americans from the U.S. government.

The article continues with the full text of Cole's resolution.

Cole, an Oklahoma Republican, is the only American Indian presently in Congress. I am currently working on a report about the Indian Health Service for my new job, and have been told that HR 1328 is not likely to come up for a vote this year. That's a shame, but perhaps when similar legislation passes next year, Cole's amendment will be a part of it.

I used to oppose apologies such as this. I believed in the typical response - I, Nathan Empsall, never did anything to harm Native Americans, and the Native Americans alive today weren't around for the Trail of Tears or Wounded Knee, so what's the point? I don't owe anyone an apology, and none of today's Indians need one!

But I was wrong. Something I have learned since becoming a Native American Studies major at Dartmouth is that, when it comes to apologies, I was wrong on every level. For one thing, the massacres, cultural attacks, slaughtered buffalo, and broken treaties of the 17, 18th, and 19th centuries were not the only horrors perpetuated upon the first nations of this continent. Abusive boarding schools, intentionally mismanaged financial trusts, land rape, adoption abuses, attacks on sovereignty, discrepancies in health and education funding, and shoddy law enforcement all continued well into the 20th century, and in some cases, straight into today.

Furthermore, while it is true that no individuals alive today were a part of the Trail of Tears or the Treaty of Fort Laramie, the fact is that the tribes of today are the tribes of yesterday, and the US government of today is the US government of yesterday. The President may be a different President, but he speaks for the same office of the Presidency. The same logic applies to Congress. These men and women represent the same institutions as perpetuated these horrors. On a related note, let us not forget cultural differences. American culture may well center on the individual and the present and future, but it is arrogant to assume that all other cultures and persons do the same. Indians are much more about community, and are much better at remembering the past and at keeping it alive. White folks may look to the past and shrug their shoulders, but in some quarters, it still matters very much.

Finally, the past does leave a legacy. The poverty of yesterday perpetuates the poverty of today, setting barriers those of us born into the middle class don't face. Yesterday's allotment mindset leads to today's slightly anti-sovereignty policies, and the convoluted policies that shackle some tribes' ability to get anything done. The past is hard to overcome, and that's hard to comprehend for those of us with pasts that don't need overcoming.

Every article I've seen on the amendment quotes Cole stressing that reparations are not a part of the legislation. Fair enough. No reparations are owed in the sense of cash handouts to individual Indians, as is sometimes discussed in relation to slavery. Instead, the U.S. government should face its constitutional and treaty obligations - fully fund Indian health care and education per treaty obligations, give back at least part of the Black Hills per treaty obligations, allow Indians full criminal jurisdiction on their own lands to help reduce the rape rate, since the underlying legal principles made no sense. If we take these and other legally mandated steps, reparations won't be needed in the slightest.

Cole's amendment offers only words, but to some people, these words will mean the world. Let us look at the outpouring of emotion in Australia following PM John Howard's apology to the aboriginal people, and not devalue the meaning of words or spirituality. If passed, Cole's words could be an important first step. Yes, this is the same man who leads the National Republican Congressional Committee and once said if John Kerry wins, Osama bin Laden wins, so needleess to say, Tom Cole is no favorite of mine. Nevertheless, even a broken clock is right twice a day, and right now it's the time of day that I tip my hat.

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