A Time of Thanks, Painful Reflection

While Thanksgiving is a welcomed as holiday, for some Americans it's an emotional reminder of the tragic history of Native Americans. Kevin Gover, director of the National Museum of the American Indian in Washington, DC; Victor Montejo, a professor of Native American Studies at the University of California Davis; and Kathleen Mahoney, a professor of Law at the University of Calgary in Canada discuss whether there's been enough done to reconcile the past, the power of official apologies and what steps need to be taken in the future.

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MICHEL MARTIN, host:

I'm Michel Martin, and this is Tell Me More from NPR News. Today, we celebrate Native American Heritage Day. This is the first time our country has officially set aside this day to recognize the contributions of Native Americans to this country's culture, politics, and other fields of endeavor. In a few minutes, we're going to hear about one way the traditional is fusing with the new - hip-hop on the reservation. Brutus Baez, better known as DJ Bigg B, takes us on a tour of new music coming from the reservation.

But first, on the matter of apologizing for past wrongs, this year in June, Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper offered a full apology on behalf of Canadians for the Indian residential school system. Just four months before that, the Australian Prime Minister, Kevin Rudd, also delivered an apology to the aboriginal people of Australia. But in the U.S., a resolution to issue a formal apology to the Native Americans passed the Senate, but died in the House. Recently, the National Museum of the American Indian held a symposium to talk about the role of national apologies to indigenous peoples. We wanted to know more, so we've called on Kevin Gover. He is the director of the museum. He's affiliated with the Pawnee and Comanche peoples.

Also joining is Victor Montejo. He's a professor of Native American Studies at the University of California Davis. Mr. Montejo is also a former Minister of Peace in Guatemala. He's a member of the Jakaltek Maya people. And Kathleen Mahoney is a professor of Law at the University of Calgary in Canada. She also is a chief negotiator for the Assembly of First Nations. And I welcome you all, and thank you all so much for coming.

Professor KATHLEEN MAHONEY (Law, University of Calgary in Canada): Thank you.

Mr. KEVIN GOVER (Director, National Museum of the American Indian): Thank you.

MARTIN: Kevin, if we could start with you. I'd like to hear about the event that you hosted at the museum. It was called "Harvest of Hope." You called it a "Symposium of Reconciliation." What's the relationship between these national apologies and reconciliation? What is to be reconciled?

Mr. GOVER: What we were trying to explore at the symposium - first of all, it was part of our Native American Heritage Month acknowledgment and was followed by a dinner at which we really talked some more reconciliation, thanksgiving, and those sorts of themes. To our minds, this time of year is about harvest. It's about gratitude and, naturally, it's about reconciliation. What we're trying to reconcile are the past and some - not the too distant past - actions by various governments directed at indigenous people that proved to be very harmful.

MARTIN: Kathleen, in June, as we mentioned, Canadian Prime Minister Harper apologized on behalf of the Canadian people. This is just a very short clip of what he said. He gave a very lengthy - and I think, to many people, moving discourse. But this is just a tiny bit of what he said.

Prime Minister STEPHEN HARPER (Canada): The government of Canada sincerely apologizes and asks the forgiveness of the aboriginal peoples of this country for failing them so profoundly.

MARTIN: Kathleen, what exactly was he apologizing for and why now?

Prof. MAHONEY: Well, this apology was part of a much larger package that formed the settlement agreement with Canada and with the variety of churches, Catholic and Protestant, who ran Indian residential schools in this country for 150 years. And the parents had, in most case, very little choice. There were criminal provisions that applied to them if they didn't send their children to the schools and other disincentives for them to send them elsewhere. And the schools were designed, as is infamously said in some government documents, to kill the Indian in the child. The government officials recognized that they could not kill Indians, but the residential schools were designed to destroy their identity as Indians and have them assimilate into the white population.

The children were forbidden to speak their own languages or to practice their culture in any way, and most of them were denied any access to their parents. Many children were abused in the schools, sexually and physically, thousands, in fact. We have 80,000 living survivors of these schools in Canada. So as a result of settling thousands of lawsuits in the courts and class-action lawsuits, we had a package of compensation amounting to several billions of dollars. There's a Truth and Reconciliation Commission, which is just now beginning to get up and rolling, and the apology was seen as absolutely critical to be the icing on the cake, if you will, to have a statement by Canada that what they did was develop a policy, which at its core was racist, and it was harmful, and that they never should have denigrated this population in this way to define them as inferior Canadians.

MARTIN: There are going to be - as you said, there are 80,000 survivors of the - this system, and I'm sure there are 80,000 reactions to the apology. But I would like to know, to the degree you feel you can say, what - how was this apology received?

Ms. MAHONEY: From all of the polling and information we've received, it was received very, very, very positively. I think it was important to say that the apology was very, very complete. We put out a draft apology prior to the apology taking place. And the apologies covered everything that we wanted covered and then some. And not only did the prime minister apologize, but each of the leaders of the opposition parties and parliament apologized as well. So there wasn't much to criticize, to be honest. It was a very thorough and complete apology.

MARTIN: Professor Montejo, if you would tell us about the circumstances of the indigenous people in Guatemala.

Professor VICTOR MONTEJO (Native American Studies, University of California Davis): Yes. Guatemala, a small country in Central America, has suffered violence throughout the centuries starting from the Spanish conquest, of course, of the early 16th century. And then during the 1954, you can talk about the U.S. intervention, the overthrow of President Arbenz, a Democratic-elected president that triggered an armed conflict which lasted three decades until the signing of the peace accords on December 29, 1996. The historical consequences of these conflicts, of course, persist until now.

Poverty, landlessness, discrimination are problems that affect indigenous people. But the major problem that indigenous people in Guatemala are facing right now is the consequence of the armed conflict during these three decades. The Commission for Historical Clarification reported that there were 200,000 people killed and disappeared during this internal armed conflict. Of the total victims, 83 percent were indigenous and 17 percent were Ladinos or non-indigenous. This is a major problem in Guatemala, and the visit of President Clinton opened up a possibility for apologies in Guatemala.

MARTIN: I was going to ask you about that just to set the table a bit. In 2006, former President Bill Clinton, when he traveled to Guatemala, apologized for the U.S. government's role in this conflict that claimed so many lives. Was this useful? And if so, why?

Prof. MONTEJO: Yeah, it was useful for two reasons. First, having the United States to recognize involvement in the massacres and destruction of indigenous culture by supporting dictators such as the generals, who have ruled the Guatemalan country, is a step to understand the situation of oppression or repression that the indigenous people have lived, because they always denied involvement in the past. And indigenous people were hopeful that after the words of apology by President Clinton, something more positive could come such as funding, roads, running water, electricity, schools. So indigenous people need these social programs to really advance and compete with other non-indigenous in Guatemala for a better future of the country.

MARTIN: Kevin, the irony, of course, is that President Clinton having gone to Guatemala to apologize for the government's role in this conflict that was so harmful to the indigenous people there, but there's never been an apology by an American government for atrocities directed at the American-Indian or native people here. There was an attempt made in the Senate side. U.S. Senator Sam Brownback offered this, passed the Senate, but it failed in the House. What do you think of this? What would an apology look like, sound like?

Mr. GOVER: First of all, any apology has to be comprehensive in order to be effective. President-elect Obama was asked at the meeting of the Journalists of Color about the possibility of an apology to Native Americans. And he said, I would want to consult with the tribes. And at first, I thought, well, that's not a very good answer. And then I realized what he was really saying is, I need them to tell me what their understanding of the grievances are. And once you've done that, you must acknowledge the entirety of the grievance in order to have an effective apology. So I think that's part of it.

But at least as important is - as the acknowledgment of past wrongs, is a commitment not to repeat them. And if you have those two elements you're on your way to a very effective apology. Another element that is not necessarily critical in any given apology, but it is present in the Canadian situation is reparations. And in the Canadian situation, the government is doing something in that direction. In the United States, there's a - they specifically forswear any such intent in the proposed resolution. So I think the apology in and of itself is significant enough that if it is not accompanied by reparations, that would not particularly trouble me.

MARTIN: This country has undertaken apologies in other matters in recent times. Recently a number of states have apologized for their role in the slave trade, and this is quite controversial. People because - generally what people say is, I wasn't there, I didn't do it. Even more recent matters such as these residential boarding schools, which also did occur in this country and perhaps not was as widespread, but kids were forced off the reservations, forced away from their parents. But many people say, I didn't do it. So what do you say to people who say, well, the persons who are directly responsible may need to apologize, but I don't?

Mr. GOVER: Yeah, well, first, you know, they have a point. They didn't do - you know, none of the people who are around today did anything to me that prevented me from having success or threatened to take my life. But here in America, we are so very proud of a long history going back to the founders. And as Americans, we tend to take credit for that in some form or fashion. But if we're going to own the good part of American history, we also have to own the not so good part of American history and acknowledge that that happened and acknowledge that it has consequences to this day, and that's a critical element.

And so for, not just Indians obviously, but for African-Americans, Asian-Americans, Irish-Americans, Italian and German-Americans, you know, everybody has got their story. And to a certain extent most populations - women - were deeply discriminated against for many years, still are. But by law, we're discriminated against, and so we have to own that part of our history. And so I'm saying, you know, the fact that a modern president apologizes or a modern Congress doesn't mean you're bad people or even that you did anything wrong. But the institution that you inherit certainly did.

MARTIN: We need to pause here for a short break, but when we come back we're going to continue our conservation about the role of apologies in national reconciliation, particularly as it pertains to first people. That's next on Tell Me More from NPR News. I'm Michel Martin.

(Soundbite of music)

MARTIN: I'm Michel Martin, and this is Tell Me More from NPR News. Coming up, if you had way too much turkey yesterday, we have some ideas for lightening your mood and hopefully your waistband: Reggae yoga and Bollywood dancing, cultural workouts. It might be the next big thing. We'll tell you about it in just a few minutes. And we'll hear about new music coming from the reservation. But first we're going to continue our conversation about reconciliation and apologies with our roundtable of experts.

Kevin Gover is director of the Smithsonian National Museum of the American Indian. Victor Montejo is a professor of Native American Studies at the University of California at Davis. And Kathleen Mahoney is a professor of Law at the University of Calgary and chief negotiator for the Assembly of First Nations. Kathleen, I did want to ask, some of the children, I don't know how many, who attended these schools were horribly abused. They were physical and sexually abused. What do you say to those of them who say, you know what? An apology, so what? It's too little too late. You can never pay me back for taking me away from my parents.

Ms. MAHONEY: That's perfectly correct. People don't have to accept an apology. The fact of the matter is here in Canada, we're lucky that so many people did accept the apology. Of course, money is a blunt instrument. We know that in the law. It's what we use to give some solace to people and some recognition that they've been wronged. But you can never replace what was taken away to those individuals in those schools. But money is at least a gesture.

MARTIN: Some would say, and I don't mean this to be offensive, some would say that's a small price to pay for access to this other civilization. That was the kind of conversation, for example, when the state of New Jersey in the U.S. debated the slavery apology. There were legislators who said, well, you know, slavery is a small price to pay for being an American. Was there that sentiment?

Ms. MAHONEY: Inherent in that comment, I have some problems with the notion that one culture is superior to another. The fact of the matter is in Canadian culture, we now have come to realize what a rich and beautiful culture the indigenous culture is. And a price to pay, I mean, a price of being separated from your family and denied your childhood and being abused and so on? That price is way too high.

MARTIN: Professor Montejo, the irony, of course, in Guatemala is that indigenous people aren't a minority. Am I right about that?

Prof. MONTEJO: Yes, they are the majority.

MARTIN: They are the majority. So what would be a proper path to reconciliation there? How do you go forward in a situation like that?

Prof. MONTEJO: I think what is important is to recognize that Mayans are indigenous people who are still living. Not to think about the Maya as a long-gone civilization contrary to what we are talking about here in Canada about the boarding school. People are practically dead. Those who did committed those crimes. In Guatemala, they are still living, but they are avoiding justice because, yeah, we have a ruling class that controls and dominates the entire population. So even if, what - the indigenous people in Guatemala are the majority, we never have been in power. It is very hard for indigenous to be in positions of power and make decision for their own people.

MARTIN: But that is the case in South Africa now. Do you see a hope for the people of Guatemala? After the South African example, or are the circumstances so different that...

Mr. GOVER: It is very different in Guatemala. The political parties are practically like a private enterprise in which the ruling class create different political parties. They are always running for the highest post, let's say the presidency, the vice presidency and congress. So unless the political situation changes, indigenous people then will participate more. So I think indigenous people need to be more educated in terms of politics and also achieve higher education, so it can make a more conscious decision of their future.

MARTIN: Kevin Gover, we've just - this is not meant to be a political statement, but we have just finished the presidential election in this country where we saw the election of the first person of African descent, the first person of color as the president of the United States. And many people see this as a step toward reconciliation among the races in this country. Do you think that in your lifetime that there will be a sense of reconciliation with the native peoples?

Mr. GOVER: Certainly not for every single native community in the country. There are many that simply suffered too much from the consequences of the past. On the other hand, there are many who are finding a return to prosperity and are psychologically and economically in a place where they can think in terms of a reconciliation with the United States. You know, I think the election of Senator Obama is not a matter of Senator Obama having brought about this reconciliation among the races but rather a reflection of changing attitudes that had already taken place.

MARTIN: What will it take for American-Indian people, Native American people to have that sense of hope? Obviously not to put you in the position of speaking for the entire, you know, community, but what would it take - does it - do you need a visible national symbol like him?

Mr. GOVER: First of all there, I think we have a national symbol, and it's actually the National Museum of the American Indian. The museum is 400 yards from the front door of the Capitol, back door actually. And we looks directly upon the Congress, the Congress looks directly upon us, in a manner of speaking. Congress chose to put this institution in that particular place, knowing full well that many of the stories that we're going to tell in that museum are stories where America failed to live up to its founding principles. And so, in a manner of speaking, I think Congress, if not offering an olive branch, was at least offering something of an acknowledgment that there's another way to look at American history.

From the day the museum opened, there was an air of nothing less than joy about the Indian people who were there, and I think they had that sense that that was a moment of reconciliation. And so, you know, we're on the right track. An apology would help, if for no other reason than it's easier to forgive when the wrong has been acknowledged. And I think most Indian people are in a place where we want to forgive. We want to move on. We want to go about being Indians without any of the burdens of the past. And so, I'm very hopeful about this, really.

MARTIN: Kevin Gover is the director of the Smithsonian National Museum of the American Indian. He was kind enough to join us from our studios in Washington. Victor Montejo is a professor of Native American studies at the University of California Davis. He's a former Minister of Peace in Guatemala, and he joined us from Capital Public Radio in Sacramento. And Kathleen Mahoney is a professor of Law at the University of Calgary in Canada, and she joined us on the phone from her office. Thank you all so much for speaking with us.

Ms. MAHONEY: Thank you.

Prof. MONTEJO: Thank you.

Mr. GOVER: Thank you.

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