You’re forgiven if you missed it.
Late last month, Congress passed and President Obama signed a bill that included text that “apologizes … to all Native Peoples for the many instances of violence, maltreatment, and neglect inflicted on Native Peoples by citizens of the United States.” Not only was news of the measure knocked from front pages by the health care debate and Tiger Woods, it was well-camouflaged within the 2010 defense appropriations bill.
Still, it is the first official apology offered by the United States for the long-running persecution of the first Americans. It follows in the tradition of federal apologies to Japanese-Americans for their internment during World War II, and to Native Hawaiians for U.S. involvement in the 1893 overthrow of their monarchy.
Included in the non-binding, bipartisan resolution was an expression of regret for a policy that even fewer non-Native Americans are aware of: “the forcible removal of Native children from their families to faraway boarding schools where their Native practices and languages were degraded and forbidden.”
Beginning in the 1870s, the federally funded system of government and religious schools eventually grew to some 500 institutions. Their official policy was to promote assimilation and effectively extinguish the cultures of Native Americans. Many of these schools relied on a severe and often brutal program of military-style discipline and Christian indoctrination. U.S. officials forced more than 100,000 kids from their families, and many of them suffered years of emotional, physical, and sexual abuse. If and when they returned home, they did so as strangers bearing Americanized names. Forced enrollment ended in the 1930s, and federal investigations and damning reports about the treatment of students brought greater scrutiny in the 1970s. Most of the schools were closed by the 1990s.
This official apology does not restore stolen lands or lives. Nor does it relieve the nightmares of mistreated boarding school alums. But it finally owns up to this country’s record of ill-conceived, bigoted, and often sadistic treatment of Native Americans. And perhaps, like any honorable apology should, it sets the stage for making amends.