Truth Be Told

My upcoming book with Dr. Soong-Chan Rah titled "Unsettling Truths - The Ongoing Dehumanizing Legacy of the Doctrine of Discovery" is now available for pre-order from InterVarsity Press.

Monday, December 19, 2011

A Native response to Mitt Romney's promise to "never apologize for the United States of America"

A few weeks ago Mitt Romney released a campaign video in which he boldly stated that, as President, he would "never apologize for the United States of America."  I would like to ask him to clarify those remarks for the nearly 4 million Native Americans citizens of this country.

A few years ago, the Canadian Prime Minister issued a public apology to the First Nations people of Canada.  That apology stemmed from the injustice of residential schools that the First Nations people suffered at the hand of the European immigrants who entered their land and aggressively laid claim to it.  This apology did not solve the problems between Canada's immigrant population and the indigenous peoples of that land.  Nor was this apology in any way an ending point.  But it was a necessary and important step to take. 

Reconciliation is a journey, a process, a rebuilding of trust.  It is not accomplished in a single action, nor does it necessarily have a clearly defined ending point.  Reconciliation is a journey to restore a relationship, and apologizing is an essential part of that journey.

I am 41 years old, and I have been married for 13 years with 3 children. One of the reasons my marriage is still healthy and my children still love me is because I learned a long time ago of the indispensible value of a sincere and well-timed apology. 

No one is perfect.  We all, at one point or another, act selfishly, arrogantly, ignorantly and even maliciously.  It is a part of being human.  The strongest people I have known and the most effective leaders I have followed are those who honestly acknowledge this. 

I have found that the more intimate the relationship or the more elevated the role of leadership, the more necessary the ability to apologize becomes.  In other words, you may be able to maintain a casual acquaintance with a co-worker without apologizing, but if your acquaintance becomes your friend and over time your friend becomes your spouse, then I am quite certain that the opportunity and the need to apologize in that relationship will present itself time and time again. 

By the same token, you may be able to lead a small three-member committee to raise funds for a local charity and complete your term without having to apologize to your fellow committee members for unkind words or insensitive actions.  But let’s say that same committee is successful and continues year after year, and the organization becomes increasingly dependent upon the funds you are raising. The pressure mounts and the amount of funds raised grows exponentially.  Then, again, the opportunity and need to apologize to the members on the committee, for thoughtless words spoken in haste or insensitive actions due to the growing pressure, will present itself time and time again.

The bio on Mitt Romney’s campaign website communicates that over the past 42 years he has raised a family, maintained a healthy marriage and built and led successful business ventures.  With all of that experience building and maintaining those multitudes of relationships, I am willing to bet that if he were completely honest he could give a powerful exhortation on the indispensible value of a sincere and well-timed apology. 

The office of the President is the most powerful, public and complex office in our land.  It requires the holder to build, maintain, lead and reconcile relationships throughout our country and the world.  Therefore, it baffles me that a top-tier candidate for this office would make such a seemingly shortsighted and arrogant statement that he will "never apologize for the United States of America." 

Those words may score political points during a partisan debate, but they are not the words of a serious national candidate who is seeking to be a leader on the global stage.

I love our country and am proud to be an American.  But I also come from the Native American community which knows first-hand that the USA is not perfect.  In our short history with the United States, we have endured forced assimilation, boarding schools, stolen land, kidnapped children, relocation and, for some tribes, genocide.  Yet, there are still a great number of us who are willing to work through that dark history and strive to live proud and productive lives as citizens of this country.  But we, and our communities, are still hurting.  We crave reconciliation and are longing to restore this important relationship that has been broken by our country.  And one would expect that at some point in the healing process, an apology would be given.  Who better to deliver it than the democratically elected President of these United States?

So if the need to apologize for the USA can be found with the first people that this young country ever encountered, how can we expect to traverse the rest of our history, as well as the plethora of global relationships without encountering that need again?  

Mitt Romney is a smart, well-educated man.  He is campaigning to competent people.  So I ask him and the rest of the 2012 Presidential candidates: Please do not insult our intelligence or your own, by making such arrogant and short-sighted statements like “I will never apologize for the United States of America.”
As I have observed and participated in the leadership process, I have concluded two things: 
First, our world is run through relationships. 
Second, everyone is human.  We are all learning and to some extent just making it up as we go along.  Crisis tends to be conveyed when leaders, media, or institutions portray themselves or others as “experts” and then act surprised or even shocked when they fail.  
To err is human and the ability to give a sincere and well-timed apology is essential.  Please do not let anyone lead you to believe otherwise.
Mark Charles (Navajo)

This article was also published on on Dec. 19, 2011


Tom Bomhof said...

As a Canadian I applauded my government for its apology to the First Nations for the abuses they put them through. I also agree with your article and hope you get to live to see the reconciliation you look for.

Anonymous said...

Mark - I read your post with great interest, and I think you are correct that it is arrogant and narrow for any statesman to claim that he need never apologize for his country. That said, I would quibble on a couple of points. First, I think Romney's words were a response to a current president who seems to think that groveling before foreign heads of state for "crimes" of America will somehow lead to greater peace and reconciliation in the world. But I think the evidence on the ground does not always bear this out, and sometimes offering apologies emboldens foreign nations bent on killing people. One has to understand the context in which one is speaking. Secondly, these political apologies are often rather obsequious, that is, they are for many "crimes" that have not been committed, and they attempt to pump others up by flattering them with historical inaccuracies. I take Obama's "apology" to Muslims to be in this vein, and I don't think it will serve the cause of relationship building well. Finally, I think your analogies of marriage and running a business are not quite apt. I will have to apologize many times to my wife because I will commit many new and fresh sins against her. If the U.S. commits ongoing crimes against Native American populations (a definitely likelihood), then the proper stance is repentance and change, not ongoing apologies. But when it comes to what the U.S. did to the Native Americans back in the 17th-20th centuries, how many times must a president apologize? Those crimes have been committed, and I dare say, apologized for (apparently Obama has apologized for them). I don't continue to repeatedly apologize to my wife for sins I committed against her last year. I don't see how it would be different for our president, current or future. So I see the value in apologizing, but I see greater value in repentance and in turning from sins that are currently being committed.

Anonymous said...

By the way, are you ever in Kansas? I'm in Topeka these days, if you're ever out this way.

T M Garcia said...

Having the US Government's apology is one facet of an apology. An apology if made honestly from the heart will entail these three things: acknowledges the mistake; will or offer to make reprimand(s) for the mistake; and, how it will not happen again in the future. This three-step process is how I teach my children to apologize. However, I am more interested in the Protestant and Catholic churches apologizing formally to the Natives of all Americas. An apology from these churches would lay the foundation for reconciliation with the Natives; wherein, it mends the spirit, which I believe is the most important part of the three states: physical, mental and spiritual (Hozho'). The government apology is the physical, the church apology is the spiritual and the two combined w/a successful reprimand and acknowledgment of our sovereignty and the right to be included and decide on the affairs of this country is the mental. If this happend, this would be a way to reconciliation.

Ben White said...

It saddens me to learn what my government and other groups did to your people. You have my apology.

Lisak said...

There are no words, actions, or emotions that could ever express the complete horrors that has been done to the Indian people. Let alone all the rest we have worked so hard on destroying around the world. My 7 year old who is now in first grade came to me last year asking about parts of our history she was just learning about in school. I had to try to explain to a child who only saw a person as a person about slavery. 6 years old. Talk about an over whelming feeling of shame. To teach your daughter america was built on the complete destruction of people. And the worst part was that was not the end of our shame she would learn about in the coming years. I will never forget that look on her face. Breaks my heart that we still, after so many generations, have people in power that are more for the almighty dollar then doing right by the people.

MarkG said...

The sense of entitlement which seems to pervade this culture, and the aggressive means by which it is pursued and 'defended' / rationalized after the fact, is particularly hard to justify. And it is exacerbated when the 'business' model of existence - all things can be quantified in money and our leaders are presumed to act as CEOs of some large corporation.

It is shameful to learn of the apology - long since due the native American - is hidden in such a way as you discovered and point out.

Thank you for your efforts to make this public and for your thoughts on it's many inequities. It is my hope that we will outgrow this behavior, but then try to drive anywhere today at the legal speed limit. Legality, the lowest common denominator of behavior deemed acceptable to the society, in this country is considered a sign of aspiration. Higher standards of morality or ethics are all secondary apparently to whether an act is 'legal' or not.

It is difficult to watch over time and I am, again, grateful for your careful observations and efforts.
May the country listen to your considered words.

Anonymous said...

Todays American's have done nothing but help today's Indian people. I pay taxes that provide FREE healthcare to Indians, a thing that I
cannot partake because my skin is white.
Every race can look back in their past and find they were wronged by another race.
Its time to look forward.
So--grow up! Look ahead.
Dragging this out only raises bad feelings.

Unknown said...

Have you ever seen the wonderful living conditions we provide to Indian reservations? Have you ever seen the way we steal the water from the Navajo Nation so american citizens can water have green grass lawns in the desert? You need to grow up and read a little, maybe go visit some real families on a reservation and see what hardships we are still forcing upon them. Free healthcare doesn't provide jobs, feed families, or provide shelter. Too many Natives have to move off the reservation and either break their family apart or take the family and lose their culture to survive.