Wednesday, December 1, 2010

Not So Thankful: Thanksgiving and Native Americans (Does Empire Mean Not Having to Say You're Sorry?)

We have come a long way from the celebratory history of the colonization of the Americas.

An important event in the transformation of debate and sentiment took place more than a generation ago, here in Massachusetts. As Mass Moments reminds us:
First Day of "National Mourning" Held in Plymouth, November 26, 1970
On this day in 1970, a group of Native Americans attending a Thanksgiving feast in Plymouth walked out in protest. The Indians and their supporters gathered on a hill overlooking Plymouth Rock near a statue of Massasoit, the Wampanoag leader who had greeted the Mayflower passengers 350 years earlier. The protesters spoke about their long struggle to preserve their land and culture. The fourth Thursday in November was not a day for thanksgiving and feasting, they declared, but for grieving and fasting. As most Americans continued to observe the holiday in what had become the customary way — with football, parades, and family gatherings — the native people of Massachusetts began a new tradition: a "National Day of Mourning," held in lieu of Thanksgiving celebrations.
The post goes on to explain some of the complexities of both the local Native American culture and relations between Native Americans (no monolithic group, even in New England, it should be stressed) and the Pilgrims.  In the intervening years, understanding of the Native American perspective has grown.

Friend and fellow-blogger Jay Adler, who writes regularly and incisively on Native American Affairs at the sad red earth, has several relevant posts in the past week.

The first, "The End of the Indian Wars: 120 Years and Counting," is an update of his earlier pioneering reporting on "pursuit of an accounting and settlement of land use fees collect in trust by the Department of the Interior since 1887."

The second takes up the question of demands for an apology for wrongs that the United States government has done to Native Americans. We of course live in a peculiar age and culture: on the one hand, we—individually, at least—are more likely than ever to apologize for our transgressions. Get caught with a hooker or a few extra girlfriends (it's usually guys, after all)? Go on Leno or Larry King and act contrite. Make a statement acknowledging the "pain" you have caused [fill in the blank], while at the same time implictly excusing your bad behavior by citing the factors that drove you to it.  Above all, try not to smirk at the devil's bargain: you pretend to act contrite, and we pretend to believe you. Actually, from an anthropological perspective, it's a fascinating phenomenon. The tempting, instinctive reaction is to see the whole thing as hypocrisy—which it is, by one standard—but that also misses another equally important point. It's really about ritual, much as in traditional honor-shame societies (as opposed to modern societies, which emphasize guilt, an internalized reaction).  The public apology reiterates and reinforces the communal norm, for it's about the group and its values, more than the individual transgression, as such.  What has been broken must be made whole.

It all becomes a bit more complicated when we begin to talk about apologies by organizations, from corporations to states. These acts of contrition can have policy implications or financial consequences. And yet, the ritual element remains important: what do we stand for? what are we condemning? what are we affirming? how? in whose voice or name?

In "A Proper Apology to Native America," Jay explains that he has been advocating such a step for years, preferably tied to Columbus Day (which is historically more appropriate), though acknowledging that Thanksgiving recommends itself as an appropriate occasion in both practical and symbolic regards. He notes that a Native American group plans to ask President Obama for an apology "for past atrocities," specifically focused on the abuses of the Indian Boarding Schools, which have become a cause célèbre in Canada and Australia, as well. He goes on to observe that the United States was "was only four nations to vote against" the Declaration of Rights of Indigenous Peoples in the UN General Assembly in 2007, and that the other three rejectionist nations—Australia, New Zealand, and Canada—have rescinded that decision; the US under President Obama has promised to do so. He concludes, "If we wish to have some idea of what a genuine apology looks like, delivered in a setting profound in its manner and import, we need only look to the Australian example," which he cites at length.  Finally, Jay turns again to western American history.In "The Lakota and the Pine Ridge Reservation," he posts the TED talk of photographer Aaron Huey.

Speaking of apologies, at the same time, a delegation of the Amish from the United States and Switzerland came to Israel (the mere fact that they traveled on airplanes was noteworthy), where, at the Western Wall, as the Jerusalem Post reports, they  "they asked the Jewish people’s forgiveness for their group’s silence during the Nazi extermination of Jews in the Holocaust." In "a ceremony in the Hasmonean chamber," they expressed their regret by offering "a parchment with a request for forgiveness in the name of the entire Amish community, along with a commitment that from now on, it would loudly voice its support of the Jewish people, especially in the wake of the expressions of hatred by Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad."

Update December 3

Jay Adler reports that Congress passed the portion of the Claims Resolution regarding Department of the Interior policy toward Native Americans (above).
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