Sorry, We Didn't Hear You: On Owning up to History and Moving Forward

Debra Hocking I Indigenous Rights I Commentary I May 5th, 2015

The Carlisle Indian Industrial School in Pennsylvania; Part of the U.S. government's "cultural assimilation campaign" in the late 1800s.

One could be forgiven if thinking that an Apology to the Native Americans has not happened. Well, apparently it has. Deceptively President Barack Obama signed off on the Native American Apology Resolution Dec. 19, 2009 as part of a defense appropriations spending bill. The resolution originated in Congress and had passed the Senate as stand-alone legislation. The House ended up adding the resolution to their version of the defense bill in conference. It was somewhat hidden in the 67-page Defense Appropriations Act of 2010 (H.R. 3326) on page 45 in between the sections which outlined how much money the U.S. military would spend on what.

The version signed by President Obama became diluted, not making a direct apology from the government, but rather apologising "on behalf of the people of the United States to all Native peoples for the many instances of violence, maltreatment, and neglect inflicted on Native peoples by citizens of the United States". The resolution also included a disclaimer: Nothing in it authorises or supports any legal claims against the United States, and the resolution does not settle any claims. The interesting point here is that the Apology was not made public, so the question is, what was the agenda was behind that. However, a public reading of the Apology was held on May 20, 2010, when Sen. Brownback read the resolution during an event at the Congressional Cemetery in Washington, D.C.

There were five tribal leaders present, representing the Cherokee, Choctaw, Muscogee (Creek), Sisseton Wahpeton Oyate and Pawnee nations.

So one has to wonder, by signing the document as part of the defense spending bill, has the resolution by Obama been fulfilled? Or, is there an obligation to say the apology out loud and to let tribes know how the resolution was signed? There should be a moral, if not ethical obligation to offer this apology to the people and not just congress. Surely one would think that if such an initiative was taken, public and press should be involved.

On February 13, 2008 The Honorable Kevin Rudd M.P. offered a very public apology to the Stolen Generations of Australia. The Prime Minister used the word " sorry" three times in the 360 word statement read to parliament. Thousands of Aboriginal Australians gathered in Canberra to watch the historic apology, which was televised around the nation and shown at special outdoor settings in remote indigenous communities. Kevin Rudd stated there came a time in history when people had to reconcile the past with their future and believed Australia had reached such a time and that was why the Parliament was there on the day assembled. This was to deal with the unfinished business of the nation. His intention was also remove a great stain from the nation's soul and in the true spirit of reconciliation to open a new chapter in the history of Australia.

The media frenzy that occurred before, during and after this event gave true testament that the nation's leader was prepared to offer what no other leader would be bold enough to do. The previous leader of the nation John Howard MP utterly refused to offer an apology. He had a certain language of defensiveness justifying the actions of past governments and those who played a part of the forcible removal of Aboriginal children from their families. It was suggested that those involved in this process believed they were 'doing the right thing'. This attitude fed the racism of many Australians who agreed with John Howard. The concept of compensation was also used by the Howard Government to scare Australians and sparked much unproductive debates around Australia.

The colonisation of Australia was underpinned by the concept of Enlightenment. Cassirer (1979: 19) cites the argument of Condillas who states that no particular class of citizen should disturb the harmony of the whole due to their unique societal requirements or prerogatives, all special interests should, for the good of all, be subjugated and should essentially contribute to the good of the whole. This may to some extent be considered as a foundation to the assimilationist policies that John Howard would not apologise to the Stolen Generations for on behalf of the Australian people present and past.

John Howard embraced an Australian history written by the colonisers and that suited a conservative Australian electorate. Walker (2008) reported that "Howard cited concerns that acceptance of wrongdoing by previous governments that enforced assimilation policies would unfairly imply wrongdoing by present generations who were not involved in removal policies". Wolfe (2009) cites Hage (2003) in stating that the threat posed by Australian Aborigines is that they signify a strong memory that contradicts the coloniser version upon which Australian citizenship and homogenous society is predicated. Is there dispute regarding the political existence of an 'other' in Australia? Does this then signify that the State (Australia and its government) has historically supported a political agenda that covertly had a plan to eliminate the minority political 'other'?

Would an apology that included compensation address the wrongs of such an agenda, but most importantly would it open up and apportion blame to political agenda's that have been supported by Australia until and including the 21st Century? Of course, to agree with compensation for the Stolen Generations, the question of sovereignty must be addressed. There would never be a case for compensation in Australia without the question of sovereignty arising. Therefore there is no reflection on the possibility that the nature of government power or the extent of the sovereignty of Australia may be in question. Sovereignty has always been assumed and there is an inherent belief in the absolute sovereignty of the coloniser in Australia.

I'm beginning to wonder if this idealology is the thinking of President Obama. This may explain why the apology to Native Americans was offered in such a contentious way. Is the fear of formally apologising to the people underpinned by the same notion as John Howard? Would there be a possibility of sending the country 'broke' through compensation claims? This certainly was a scare tactic by the Howard government and many Australians believed that not only would it financially ruin Australia but the issue of sovereignty would see much of the land apportioned back to Aboriginal people.

This notion was overturned by Kevin Rudd, and he successfully offered an apology with meaningful gusto. Although President Obama has offered a tokenistic apology to the Native Americans, it would appear that transgenerational injustice remains. My hope is that one day Native Americans can experience what Aboriginal people experienced with the offer of a meaningful apology.

Maybe President Obama should speak to Kevin Rudd!


Cassirer, E. 1979. The Philosophy of Enlightenment. Ed. J.C.B Mohr 1932. Trans. J.C.B. Mohr 1951. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

Walker, C. 2008. 'Apology to the Stolen Generations welcomed, compensation the next step. . Accessed 2 April 2015

Wolfe, P. 2009. "The inherent limits of the apology to the Stolen Generation." University of Adelaide Law School research Paper No. 2009-002. Adelaide: University of Adelaide.