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Behind the Headlines: APA News Blog

Academic Version: Applying my personal experiences and academic research as a professor of Sociology and Asian American Studies to provide a more complete understanding of political, economic, and cultural issues and current events related to American race relations, and Asia/Asian America in particular.

Plain English: Trying to put my Ph.D. to good use.

March 4, 2008

Written by C.N.

Government Apologies to Native Populations

Normally, governments do not officially apologize for past actions or policies that may have negatively impacted particular racial, ethnic, or cultural groups. As one example, here on this blog, I have written numerous times about the consequences of the Japanese government’s inability or unwillingness to apologize for its atrocities during World War II. The one notable exception was when the U.S. government apologized for the unjust imprisonment of Japanese Americans during WWII.

However, two recent news items show that maybe, just maybe, governments around the world are becoming more open to acknowledging the unjust nature of their past actions targeted at particular groups.

The first example concerns Australia. Similar to the experiences of Native American Indians and Blacks in the U.S., the history of how aborigines in Australia have been treated is well-documented. This history includes blatant and systematic discrimination, physical brutality, and the forced separation of mixed-race aborigine children from their parents to be raised “White,” referred to as the “stolen generation.”

Within this context and as CBS News reports, in a move that has strong symbolic — if not practical — meaning, the Australian government will now issue a formal apology to aborigines for the historical practice of forced child-parent separation (portrayed in the critically-acclaimed 2002 movie Rabbit Proof Fence):

Australia will issue its first formal apology to the country’s indigenous people next month . . . a milestone that could ease tensions with a minority once subjected to policies including the removal of mixed-blood children from families on the premise that their race was doomed. . . .

[Government leaders] have previously ruled out financial compensation for the impoverished minority. . . . Australia’s original inhabitants, Aborigines number about 450,000 among a population of 21 million. Aborigines are the poorest ethnic group in Australia and are most likely to be jailed, unemployed and illiterate. . . .

From 1910 until the 1970s, around 100,000 mostly mixed-blood Aboriginal children were taken from their parents under state and federal laws based on a premise that Aborigines were a doomed race and saving the children was a humane alternative.

A national inquiry in 1997 found that many children taken from their families suffered long-term psychological effects stemming from the loss of family and culture.

The second example involves our own American government. As the Associated Press reports, Senator Sam Brownback (R-Kan) has proposed legislation that would officially apologize to the American Indian population for centuries of mistreatment from the federal government:

“For too much of our history, federal-tribal relations have been marked by broken treaties, mistreatment and dishonorable dealings,” said Brownback, a Republican. “We can acknowledge our past failures, express sincere regrets and establish a brighter future for all Americans.”

The resolution says the federal government forced Indians off tribal lands, stole tribal assets and is responsible for “official depredations, ill-conceived policies and the breaking of covenants” with tribes. The Senate added the resolution as an amendment to the health care bill by voice vote Thursday night. . . .

It is unusual for Congress to apologize for official government acts, though there have been exceptions, including a 1988 apology for interning Japanese-Americans in detention camps during World War II and a 1993 apology to native Hawaiians for the unlawful overthrow of the Hawaiian Kingdom. . . .

The Indian apology resolution in the Senate bill is careful to state that it is not meant to authorize or support any claim against the U.S. government or serve as a settlement of any claim.

I commend both the new Australian government and our own Congress for taking these actions, although I am disappointed that financial reparations are not included in either case. Nonetheless, both examples are a positive symbolic step forward into acknowledging the injustices of the past.

To be honest, I am also rather shocked that a conservative Republican (Sen. Brownback) is leading this effort and that Congress is well on its way to approving such a measure and I give huge props to Senator Brownback for having the conviction to lead this effort.

Maybe things have changed, who knows — governments acknowledging their past mistakes and conservatives recognizing systematic racial injustice. Stranger things have happened.


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Copyright © 2001- by C.N. Le. Some rights reserved. Creative Commons License

Suggested reference: Le, C.N. . "Government Apologies to Native Populations" Asian-Nation: The Landscape of Asian America. <http://www.asian-nation.org/headlines/2008/03/government-apologies-to-native-populations/> ().

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