Over the meal, even though the seating is open, the tables are mostly segregated and the room is unusually quiet. Food is eaten, napkins are folded, the garbage is dumped, as everyone solemnly returns to the room where more stories of a similar nature are shared.
This process is repeated the next day, and the next. Some of the voices are angry, some are broken, some are resentful, but a few are hopeful.
As the days progress and more and more stories are shared, subtle changes begin to take place. The room is opened up to create more space. The story tellers are standing taller. The audience is beginning to make eye contact. The lunch and dinner tables are noticeably less segregated. There is more conversation. And on the stage behind the podium, a few of the empty chairs are occupied.
A Buried Apology to Native Peoples of the United States:
December 19, 2014 was the 5th anniversary of an apology given by the US Congress and the President of the United States on behalf of the citizens of the United States to the Indigenous peoples of this land. Unfortunately, this apology received very little, if any, press over the past half-decade. It was inserted by Senator Sam Brownback (KS) into House Resolution 3326, the 2010 Department of Defense Appropriations Act and buried on page 45 in sub-section 8113.
This seven bullet point apology contained no reference to any specific tribe, treaty or injustice and ended with a disclaimer. It was inserted into this bill because Senator Brownback had tried unsuccessfully for about 2 years to get an apology into a stand-alone bill. But that bill never made it out of committee. So he inserted it into an appropriations act. Apparently that was how Congress historically passed Indian Treaties. They found that there was less likely to be opposition when the treaties were a part of large appropriation bills.
The bill passed and went to President Obama's desk to be signed on December 19, 2009. The signing of this bill was private and there was no press conference regarding it. The White House did release a press release about the bill, but no mention was made of the apology contained within it.
You may be wondering how this could be. How could a bill containing an apology from the United States Congress to Native Americans for centuries of injustice be buried so deep and not make any public waves in either political circles or in the media?
I believe it is because of the history this apology is attempting to address. It is a history that is not taught in schools. A history that our leaders don’t know well, but are terrified is true. And a history that most citizens are too ashamed to learn even exists. It is a history that goes back centuries and affects the very foundations of this nation.
15th Century – Doctrine of Discovery:
In 1452, Pope Nicholas V wrote the following words in a Papal Bull:
“…invade, search out, capture, vanquish, and subdue all Saracens and pagans whatsoever, and other enemies of Christ wheresoever placed, and the kingdoms, dukedoms, principalities, dominions, possessions, and all movable and immovable goods whatsoever held and possessed by them and to reduce their persons to perpetual slavery, and to apply and appropriate to himself and his successors the kingdoms, dukedoms, counties, principalities, dominions, possessions, and goods, and to convert them to his and their use and profit”
This Bull was the first in a series of Papal Bulls written in the 15th century that became known as the Doctrine of Discovery. Essentially, the Doctrine of Discovery was the Church in Europe saying to the Nations of Europe, "whatever land you find that are not ruled by Christian Rulers, those people are less than human and the lands are yours for the taking."
It was the Doctrine of Discovery that allowed European Nations to colonize Africa and enslave the African people. It was also the Doctrine of Discovery that allowed Christopher Columbus to get lost at sea, land in a “New World” inhabited by millions, and claim to have "discovered" it. Because his doctrine informed him that we, the indigenous peoples, were less than human, and therefore the land was empty.
The Doctrine of Discovery is a systemically racist doctrine.
1776 – Declaration of Independence:
"We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are; Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness."
Most US citizens can easily recite the above passage, and our leaders and our media frequently refer to these words. It is what we use to justify ourselves to the world. We use it as evidence that as a people, as a nation, we are good. However very few can recite much beyond what was quoted above. If they could, and if they understood something about colonial history, they might not be so quick to reference this declaration.
After the Declaration there is a long list of justification given for why the colonies were declaring their independence from the control of England. And the 7th justification reads:
"He has endeavoured to prevent the population of these States; for that purpose obstructing the Laws for Naturalization of Foreigners; refusing to pass others to encourage their migrations hither, and raising the conditions of new Appropriations of Lands."
13 years prior, King George issued the Proclamation of 1763. In this proclamation a line was drawn down the Appalachian Mountains and the colonies were essentially told that they no longer had the right of discovery of the Indian Lands west of Appalachia. Only the crown could thereafter negotiate treaties and buy or sell those lands. This deeply upset the colonies. For they wanted those empty Indian lands and King George was "raising the conditions of new Appropriations of (their rightful) Lands."
Justification 27, the final justification in the list, states:
"He has excited domestic insurrections amongst us, and has endeavoured to bring on the inhabitants of our frontiers, the merciless Indian Savages, whose known rule of warfare, is an undistinguished destruction of all ages, sexes and conditions."
How can a declaration that begins by stating "All men are created equal" go on to include justifications that dehumanize the Indian tribes and peoples who were already living in this land? Clearly the founding Fathers had a very narrow definition of who qualified as human. Therefore they could state “ALL men are created equal” because they did not believe that the “merciless Indian Savages” who occupied the empty Indian lands west of the Appalachian Mountains were actually human.
The Declaration of Independence is a systemically racist document.
1788 – Constitution of the United States of America:
…Representatives and direct Taxes shall be apportioned among the several States which may be included within this Union, according to their respective Numbers, which shall be determined by adding to the whole Number of free Persons, including those bound to Service for a Term of Years, and excluding Indians not taxed, three fifths of all other Persons.”
After the colonies had won the Revolutionary War and their freedom from the Crown, then they needed to establish guidelines for their grand experiment of building a new nation. In the founding documents they needed to clearly define who "All men" actually referred to. And a plain text reading of the Constitution makes it quite clear; African Slaves and Native Americans are NOT included in the group of ALL.
The Constitution of the United States of America is a systemically racist document.
1823 – Johnson vs. M’Intosh – Supreme Court
“As they [European colonizing nations] were all in pursuit of nearly the same object, it was necessary, in order to avoid conflicting settlements, and consequent war with each other, to establish a principle, which all should acknowledge as the law by which the right of acquisition, which they all asserted, should be regulated as between themselves. This principle was, that discovery gave title to the government by whose subjects, or by whose authority, it was made, against all other European governments, which title might be consummated by possession.”
In 1823, a case, Johnson vs. M’Intosh, was brought before the US Supreme Court. This case involved 2 men of European descent litigating over ownership of a piece of land. One purchased the land from an Indian tribe and the other acquired the land from the Government.
“The court viewed this (the above statement) as a minor procedural act, but in articulating this doctrine, the case took on a meaning far beyond the imaginings of the court. The core of this decision was that the United States inherited the right of discovery from the British following the War of Independence; by stepping foot on North America, settlers had, according to this understanding of discovery, the absolute right to the land on which they stood. This created a situation in which the American government owned a monopoly concerning the purchase of Aboriginal land, which decreased the price of that land. This referred to the papal bulls of the fifteenth century, encoding it in federal case law. This has since been declared a legal fiction, meaning that it has no foundation in law in spite of its common legal and popular usage. It has still been the foundation for legal and policy decisions in Canada and the United States. The impact of Johnson v. M’Intosh is, according to Wilkins and Lomawaima, an Indian policy that ‘rests on a foundation of racism, ethnocentrism, repression of tribal histories, inappropriate policy-making by judicial bodies, and inaccurate historical understandings.’”
(Footnote - 1)
This legal precedent and the Doctrine of Discovery was referenced by the US Supreme Court as recently as 2005.
The Supreme Court of the United States of America is a systemically racist court.
1830 - The Indian Removal Act:
"The Indian Removal Act gave power to the government to make treaties with Native nations that forced them to give up their lands in exchange for land west of the Mississippi. These treaties on the surface, spoke to a voluntary exchange and removal of nations, though in reality, most of these treaties were made forcefully, by withholding food, through the decimation of food sources, such as the buffalo, and through violent acts including warfare.
- 1838 “Trail of Tears”. 17,000 Cherokee people were removed from their home territory. As many as 4,000 died on the way, about as many died as a result of the forced march and as many as half of the survivors died within the first year of relocation, due to disease.
- The forced removal of the Navajos to Bosque Redondo, a reservation in eastern New Mexico. Collectively known as the “Long Walk” the approximately 400-mile-long series of marches was endured by more than 8,000 men, women, and children.
- Many nations including Chickasaw, Shawnee, Lennape, Osage, Kickapoo, Chocktaw, Seminole, Creek, Sauk, Fox, and Dakota all experienced forced relocations."
(Section taken from: Footnote - 2)
1864 - Sand Creek Massacre:
"On November 29, 1864, approximately 675 United States soldiers under the command of Colonel John Chivington killed more than 200 Cheyenne and Arapaho villagers, mostly elderly men, women, and children, approximately 180 miles southeast of Denver near Eads, Colorado. Despite assurance from American negotiators that they would be safe, and despite Cheyenne Chief Black Kettle raising both a United States flag and a white flag as symbols of peace, Colonel Chivington ordered his troops to take no prisoners and to pillage and set the village ablaze, violently forcing the ambushed and outnumbered Cheyenne and Arapaho villagers to flee on foot. Colonel Chivington and his troops paraded mutilated body parts of men, women, and children in downtown Denver, Colorado, in celebration of the massacre." (3 - Colorado Senate Joint Resolution 14-030)
1879 - Indian Boarding Schools:
"A great general has said that the only good Indian is a dead one," Pratt said. "In a sense, I agree with the sentiment, but only in this: that all the Indian there is in the race should be dead. Kill the Indian in him, and save the man."
“Beginning in 1887, the federal government began an immersion program. By 1900, thousands of children were attending close to 150 boarding schools throughout the United States. The schools sought to strip children of their culture and remove them from the influence of their family and nation.” (Section taken from: Footnote - 2)
"The number of Native American children in the boarding schools reached a peak in the 1970s, with an estimated enrollment of 60,000 in 1973. Investigations of the later twentieth century have revealed many documented cases of sexual, manual, physical and mental abuse occurring at such schools." ("Soul Wound: The Legacy of Native American Schools". Amnesty International USA. Retrieved February 8, 2006)
1887 - Dawes Allotment Act:
“Under the 1887 Allotment Act (Dawes Act) – every man 18 years or older was allotted 160 acres of land. The idea was designed to settle Native peoples on land, encourage farming, and assimilate them into the broader society. After all Native men were designated land, the rest was opened up for white settlement. By 1934, land the United States government allowed Native people to occupy was reduced by about 2/3, which is approximately 156,000 square miles, a land mass roughly the size of Californian. Of the land that remained unsettled, about1/3 (25,000 square miles) was unfit for most profitable uses, being desert or semi-desert land.”
(Section taken from: Footnote - 2)
1890 - Massacre at Wounded Knee:
Lakota Chief Big Foot and between 150-350 women, children and warriors are massacred at Wounded Knee.
20 Congressional Medals of Honor were awarded to US Soldiers who participated in the massacre.
Numerous efforts have been attempted to have these medals rescinded as this massacre can arguably be seen as a war crime. But every attempt has failed.
1924 - Indian Citizenship Act:
The Indian Citizenship Act of 1924 declares all non-citizen Indians born within the United States to be citizens, giving them the right to vote. Non-citizen Indians had to be specified because previous legislation and allowed Indians to apply for and receive US Citizenship if they renounced their allegiance to their tribe. Despite passage of the Indian Citizenship Act, the right to vote was still governed by state law, and many Native Americans were effectively barred from voting until 1948. This is an important date to note, because in 1942 several Navajos from the Southwest were enlisted into the United States Marine Corp and asked to develop a top-secret military code for use in World War II. Based on their language these code talkers developed a code so effective that it was never broken and is credited with helping to win the war in the Pacific. However, in 1942 these original code talkers were effectively not even eligible to vote in the country they were being asked to serve.
2007 - United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples:
"The United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples was adopted by the UN in 2007. Initially the United States, Canada, Australia and New Zealand voted against it, though 143 member states voted for it, and 11 abstained. It wasn’t until three years later, under pressure from Indigenous Peoples and the international community, that the United States, Canada, New Zealand and Australia signed on." (Section taken from: Footnote - 2)
2009 - Apology to Native Peoples of the United States:
This apology is buried in H.R. 3326, the 2010 Department of Defense Appropriations Act. To this day this apology has not been publically announced, publicized or read by the White House or the US Congress.
Why was the apology to Native peoples buried deep within the 2010 Department of Defense Appropriations Act?
The institutions of this nation have been established on the premise that Native Americans and African Americans are not human. They can be enslaved, their lands can be taken and their populations can destroyed, incarcerated or killed without a trial.
The United States of America is a systemically racist nation.
In 1630, in the colony of Boston, John Winthrop preached a sermon in which he referred to the colony as a “City on a Hill” and reminded them that they must be obedient so God to that "the Lord our God may blesse us in the land whether wee goe to possesse it." This sermon was the Protestant church in America beginning to internalize and adopt the Doctrine of Discovery. It is the colonies, and later the nation, beginning to see their presence in North America as a God-blessed, even a God-ordained, event out of which comparisons to Old Testament Israel and their journey to a "Promised Land" could be drawn. Over the next hundred years or so this thinking matured into an understanding that not only was this new nation a "City on a Hill" but it also had a “Manifest Destiny” to discover, occupy and rule this continent from "sea to shining sea."
Today, our leaders and our institutions continue to ease our guilt and massage our egos by telling us, that as a people, as a nation, we are exceptional. Our educational systems may be failing, our infrastructure may be crumbling, our manufactured and genetically modified foods may be killing us, our technology and consumption may be altering our climate, our middle class may be disappearing, we may be torturing our enemies, we may be aborting our babies, and our minority populations may be forced to scream out that "their lives matter." But, we tell ourselves, "We are exceptional." "We are good." "We have a 'manifest destiny'." And "The United States of America is still a 'City on a Hill'."
As a nation we have to believe that we are exceptional, because if we aren't, if our history is truly this dark, then that means our nation is merely average. If our nation is not exceptional, then our unjust history of discovery, slavery, genocide, theft, torture and dehumanizing the other is no longer justified. If we are merely average, and our existence is not ordained by God, than we can be held accountable for our actions, both past and present, just like everyone else.
So we bury our apologies, we rewrite our history, and we point to the words of our founding fathers who blindly stated that "we hold these truths to be self-evident that all men are created equal."
We just don't tell anyone that, as a people and as a nation, we have an extremely narrow definition of who is actually human.
The United States of America is not rich and powerful because of God’s blessing. We are rich and powerful because we are systemically racist and inherently unjust.
A Truth Commission:
2 years ago, on December 19, 2012 I had the privilege of hosting a public reading of the US Apology to Native peoples in front of the US Capitol Building in Washington DC. More than 150 people from throughout the nation traveled, at their own expense, to DC in order to take part in this reading. The Apology was translated into the Navajo and Ojibwe languages. And it was publically read in English, Navajo and Ojibwe.
I spent most of 2012 traveling throughout the United States speaking with leaders from Church denominations and evangelical associations. I delivered letters to members of the House of Representatives and the US Senate. I communicated with the White House and spoke with Governor Sam Brownback (previously Senator Brownback). I visited tribal councils and spoke with tribal leaders. I spoke at educational institutions and with academic leaders. I wrote articles and sent Press Releases to national media outlets and news organizations. But virtually none of these leaders opted to attend and only one national news organization wrote a story regarding the event (CNN – Navajo man wants the nation to hear its official apology).
This experience taught me that the government and institutions of our nation are simply incapable of engaging with this history. The topic is too hot, the liability is too big, and the risks are too great. So that leaves it up to us. You and me. The citizens of the United States of America. Native Americans, African Americans, Americans of European descent, Hispanic Americans, Asian Americans, recent immigrants to this land as well as immigrants whose families established the original colonies.
The institutions of this nation may be systemically racist, but I do not believe a majority of the citizens are. However, in a nation that is systemically racist, anti-racism is less about personal racist attitudes and more about a willingness to change the system. So if our leaders and our institutions are incapable of addressing these issues I would like to invite the American people to address these issues.
I would like to propose that we begin planning a Truth Commission. A series of national conferences to be held throughout the country that would create space and give platform for indigenous elders and peoples to share their stories and let the truth be known about the abuse, trauma and injustice that they endured. Other countries, such as South Africa and Canada, have held Truth and Reconciliation Commissions that were of a similar nature, but the major difference was the governments and institutions of those countries were compelled through litigation or other circumstances to engage in those conversations.
That is not the case here in the United States, and I am hesitant to try and force our government and institutions to participate through lawsuits. For as was demonstrated above, our Declaration of Independence, our Constitution and our Supreme Court are all systemically racist, so in their current form they are incapable of delivering justice regarding these issues.
However, I am also not hopeless regarding our leaders or our institutions, and I would propose that at the Truth Commission gatherings we leave “empty chairs” for the leaders of these governments, organizations and institutions to participate. We leave chairs for President Obama, Pope Francis, state governors and members of Congress. We leave chairs for church denomination heads and leaders of academic institutions. I would even recommend we leave empty chairs for heads of state from other countries that participated in the “discovery” and colonization of this land, such as Spain, England, France and the Netherlands.
Our nations is in agony, and our people are literally crying out in pain. Our history is dark and the path forward is difficult. As a country we need to give up the false notion of our exceptionalism and accept the fact that we are no better than any other nation around the world. We need to remember that this land was not empty and Europeans did not discover it. We need to acknowledge that Africans and African Americans are human and their labor is not free. We need to accept that holidays like Columbus Day are meant to be mourned, not celebrated. We need to own our history, publicize our apologies and accept responsibility for our actions.
Our leaders and our institutions have already demonstrated they are incapable of doing this. So it is up to us. You and me, the citizens of the United States of America, and the indigenous peoples of Turtle Island.
I propose that we host the first conference of this Truth Commission in Washington DC in December of 2016. We will have just elected a new President but, President Obama, the signatory of H.R. 3326 and the initiator of the annual Tribal Nations Conference, will still be in office.
President Obama’s signature and lack of acknowledgement of this apology bewilders me. On May 19, 2008, then, Senator Obama held a campaign event on the Crow Indian Reservation in Montana. Before speaking to the thousands of supporters who attended, a private ceremony was held and Mr. Obama was adopted into the Crow tribe. Sonny and Mary Black Eagle became his adoptive parents and he was given the name "One Who Helps People Throughout the Land.” Ten months after being sworn in as the 44th President of the United States, President Obama hosted the first annual Tribal Nations Conference at the White House. Representatives from each of the 560+ federally recognized tribes were invited to attend a day of meetings and discussions with President Obama and members of his Cabinet and staff. While such a meeting is not completely unprecedented, this was the largest such gathering ever held and President Obama is the first President to such meetings annually each year he has been in office.
After all President Obama has done to engage our nation in conversations about race as well as to include the indigenous peoples of this land at the table. I would like to give him an opportunity, as the sitting President of the United States of America, to participate in this dialogue and fill one of the empty chairs.
This gathering is not an event. Nothing is being concluded. No treaties are being signed. No final decisions are being made. But there is a commitment, a resolve. The citizens of the United States and the peoples of Turtle Island have swelled up from the grass roots level and virtually filled the stadium. They have started a conversation and initiated healing.
Everyone understands that this gathering is only the beginning and there is still much work to be done. For the chairs, the ones on the stage behind the podium are still mostly empty. However, there is hope. For the stadium is full and the sheer number of citizens willing to engage these issues and discuss this history has begun to give courage to a few of the institutions and some of their leaders. And each day throughout the gathering there is one or two less empty chairs.
I, my family and my organization (5 Small Loaves) are fully committed to the vision of a Truth Commission. But we clearly recognize this is something that we cannot do alone. We need friends, partners, colleagues, supporters and other leaders in order to make this happen. Because of this, my wife Rachel and I have decided to move our family to Washington DC. Building such an extensive network of relationships and partners is going to require a lot of travel, speaking, writing and collaboration. And Fort Defiance AZ, where we currently live, is a 3 hour drive from the nearest airport. Washington DC has 2 major airports. It is a national, even global, hub and a frequent travel destination for countless organizations, leaders and every day citizens. I already have 3 trips planned in the months of January and early February to speak with people who are interested in partnering in this work and I am positive that is merely the tip of the iceberg.
Our plan is to spend the next 6-9 months building a network of support, raising public awareness and gauging national interest. If by August or September of 2015 we determine there is sufficient engagement and interest in a Truth Commission, then we will move into the actual planning stages for the first gathering in Washington DC in December of 2016.
**After moving to Washington DC six months ago and extensively traveling, speaking and writing about the Doctrine of Discovery and (specifically) the idea for a national Truth Commission for the past 12 months, I have been greatly encouraged by the vast number of people and communities open to confronting this history and addressing the Doctrine of Discovery. However I also do not think a national dialogue will be able to be initiated by December 2016. But I do believe one is possible. So I have adjusted my sights and am now aiming for a national Truth and Conciliation Commission in 2021 (#TCC2021).
(I have added the term Conciliation because it calls for the mediation of a dispute. I am intentionally not using the word Reconciliation because it perpetuates the myth of a pre-existing unity of race relations in the United States.)
(Updated December 29, 2015)
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- An Apology, An Appropriations Bill and a Conversation that Never Happened
- A Public Reading of the Apology to Native Peoples of the United States
- Text of H.R. 3326 Apology to Native Peoples of the United States
- YouTube Video of Invitation to Public Reading of H.R. 3326
- The Christian Doctrine of Discovery: A North American History - CRCNA Doctrine of Discovery Task Force - Seth Adama
- Quotations from "The Loss of Turtle Island" drawn from script adapted for use in the CRCNA. The CRCNA acknowledges with deep thanks, the work of MCC USA to develop this content and Kairos Canada's ongoing work on the Blanket Exercise - the inspiration for the US version "the Loss of Turtle Island"