In recent months the Idle No More movement, which originated among First Nations activists in Canada and soon spread to the United States, coupled with the increasing prominence of First Nations and Native American voices among those protesting construction of the Keystone XL and Enbridge Northern Gateway pipelines, have helped to raise awareness of the many injustices which fill the history of relationships between the U.S. and Canadian governments and the Aboriginal peoples of North America. I wrote this article in February 2008 when the Australian government was preparing to issue its first formal apology to Aboriginal people for the decades-long practice of forcibly removing Aboriginal children from their family homes and placing them to be raised by white families. Current events make it apparent that it is still relevant in February 2013.
The Australian policy, in effect from 1915 to 1969, had been intended to compel assimilation of the indigenous people into the dominant white culture. The wording of the apology was worked out in consultation with Aboriginal leaders. It acknowledged the great harm done by past governments while refraining from ascribing any guilt to current political leaders. Both sides were hopeful that this action would permit some healing and an improvement in relations between the Aborigines and the Australian government.
The history of exploitation and abuse of indigenous peoples by European explorers and their descendents is a long and sorry one. In recent years a number of similar apologies have been offered. Especially distressing to people of faith is the recognition that frequently the church has been complicit in the horrors inflicted on peoples native to conquered continents.
Indian Residential Schools were common throughout the U.S. and Canada from the 1870’s through the latter part of the 20th Century. The Carlisle Industrial Training School was the first, opening in 1879. Within three decades nearly 500 schools had been established in the U.S., the vast majority of them run by churches. Children as young as five were taken from their families and placed in boarding schools where they were forbidden to use their native languages or have more than brief annual contact with their relatives.
Canada adopted the U.S. model in the 1880’s and maintained it well into the 1970’s. Because the survivors of the system in Canada are younger and more willing to talk about their experiences, documentation of the widespread physical and sexual abuse in the schools is more complete in Canada than in the U.S. The testimony is gruesome. A 2007 Amnesty International report notes, “A 2001 report by the Truth Commission into Genocide in Canada documents the responsibility of the Roman Catholic Church, the United Church of Canada, the Anglican Church of Canada, and the federal government in the deaths of more than 50,000 Native children in the Canadian residential school system.”
In 1998 I met a Canadian First Nations woman named Judy who was participating in the recording project “We Are the Land We Sing” with Carolyn McDade. She had been taken from her family at the age of seven and forced into a Residential School in Saskatchewan. We stood in the snow before a large, ugly brick building which had been the school where she was placed while she told of being torn from the beloved grandmother who had been her constant companion. Her grief and sense of loss is seared into my memory.
Canadian churches have made significant efforts toward confession, apology, and reconciliation. Beginning in the early 1990’s, as public awareness of the horrific abuses increased, the Anglican Church, the Presbyterian Church, and the United Church of Canada, along with several Roman Catholic orders, have offered official apologies to First Nations people. Unfortunately, for the most part U.S. churches have not followed the example of their Canadian neighbors.
Some U.S. churches have, however, apologized to African-Americans for their complicity in the institution of slavery. It is a step toward healing the terrible wounds of racism which still afflict our nation. These actions have not been accomplished without opposition. After the Moravian Church, Southern Province, issued a statement in April 2006 apologizing for its historic participation in slavery, there was comment from several individuals that they did not think the action appropriate because their ancestors did not own slaves.
In my opinion, this misses the main point of apology for historic wrongs. None of us was alive when slavery was abolished, and most of us are not descended from slave owners. But as members of the Christian faith, we are part of the story of that faith, both the positive and the negative. And we live in a culture that continues to be shaped by the consequences of our history. By expressing contrition and asking forgiveness of the descendents of those who were wronged by our spiritual ancestors, we can contribute to the healing of that culture.
The liturgical denominations have corporate confession as part of their worship practice. The General Liturgy of the 1995 Moravian Book of Worship includes the prayer, “Most holy and almighty God, our Savior, we confess our disobedience… We have sinned and done wrong. The good that we knew to do we have not done.” If we take this seriously, we can understand the need for apology.
Serious apology should include the impulse to take some concrete step toward reconciliation and restoration of right relationship. In the instances of slavery, the treatment of Native Americans, apartheid in South Africa, or the “stolen generation” of Aborigines in Australia, it is often not possible to reconcile with those who were wronged. Many of them are already deceased. But it is possible to “pay it forward.”
We can listen attentively and take seriously what the descendents of the abused tell us they need to achieve healing – and yes, that includes eliminating sports logos that co-opt Native images. We can advocate for fair and just treatment, for adequate services for those still suffering the consequences of past abuse. We can raise our voices in protest against the contamination and destruction of tribal lands by extractive industries. Most immediately in the U.S., we can demand of our congressional representatives that the Violence Against Women Act be reinstated with inclusion of the strengthened protection for Native American women, a provision already approved by the Senate. And above all, we can hold always in mind that every person is a child of God, equally deserving of respect. Confession, repentance, reconciliation – it is the process that God has established so that all may flourish.