A Lame Apology and Poems with a Punch

Mark Charles (Navajo) told me a while back about the lamest apology ever made, the one Congress made to Native Americans, the one buried in the  2010 Defense Appropriations Bill.

Until recently I hadn’t heard about the poem that apology inspired.

Before getting to the poem, let’s take a couple of steps back to the beginning of the story: Senate Joint Resolution 14, proposed in the 111th Congress (2009). The resolution starts by acknowledging: “a long history of official depredations and ill-conceived policies by the Federal Government regarding Indian tribes and offer an apology to all Native Peoples on behalf of the United States.”

It then has a series of 20 “Whereas” statements that set the stage for the apology, starting with:

Whereas the ancestors of today’s Native Peoples inhabited the land of the present-day United States since time immemorial and for thousands of years before the arrival of people of European descent; …

Skipping ahead …

Whereas the policies of the Federal Government toward Indian tribes and the breaking of covenants with Indian tribes have contributed to the severe social ills and economic troubles in many Native communities today;
And ending with:
Whereas Native Peoples are endowed by their Creator with
certain unalienable rights, and among those are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness:
These statements are followed by the official acknowledgement and apology. The resolution didn’t pass, but part got added to page 45 of the 67-page Defense Appropriations Bill. All 20 “Whereas” statements got cut.

Whereas

And now we come to the collection of poems titled “Whereas” (2017) by Layli Long Soldier (Oglala Lakota). The collection is a response to the deeply flawed apology. The book is divided into two parts; Part I is “These Being the Concerns” and Part II is “Whereas.”

Here is one of the Whereas poems available through the Poetry Foundation’s website. The poem’s narrative arc is a conversation between the protagonist and a blue-eyed, beer-swilling man, who casually notes: “Well at least there was an Apology that’s all I can say.”

The poem is written in the form of Whereas statements, just like the resolution. Here are a couple of passages:

Whereas truthfully I wished most to kick the legs of that man’s chair out from under him;

And

Whereas like a bird darting from an oncoming semi my mind races to the Apology’s assertion “While the establishment of permanent European settlements in North America did stir conflict with nearby Indian tribes, peaceful and mutually beneficial interactions also took place”;

For more on Long Soldier, click here for the L.A. Times review: Why you should be reading poet Layli Long Soldier. Click here for the New York Times Review: A Native American Poet Excavates the Language of Occupation.

The Apology
To wrap things up, we should read the actual apology included in the 2010 Defense Appropriations bill. Here’s the key takeaways. After the bill was signed into law by President Obama, there was no public acknowledgement. There was no ceremony. Nothing.

The kicker comes in the resolution’s last lines — the disclaimer.

Nothing in this section—

(1) authorizes or supports any claim against the United States; or
(2) serves as a settlement of any claim against the United States.

That is to say: “You can’t sue us based on this invisible apology.”

The entire apology isn’t long, so we’ll copy the whole thing here.

Sec. 8113

(a) Acknowledgment and apology

The United States, acting through Congress—

(1) recognizes the special legal and political relationship Indian tribes have with the United States and the solemn covenant with the land we share;

(2) commends and honors Native Peoples for the thousands of years that they have stewarded and protected this land;

(3) recognizes that there have been years of official depredations, ill-conceived policies, and the breaking of covenants by the Federal Government regarding Indian tribes;

(4) apologizes on behalf of the people of the United States to all Native Peoples for the many instances of violence, maltreatment, and neglect inflicted on Native Peoples by citizens of the United States;

(5) expresses its regret for the ramifications of former wrongs and its commitment to build on the positive relationships of the past and present to move toward a brighter future where all the people of this land live reconciled as brothers and sisters, and harmoniously steward and protect this land together;

(6) urges the President to acknowledge the wrongs of the United States against Indian tribes in the history of the United States in order to bring healing to this land; and

(7) commends the State governments that have begun reconciliation efforts with recognized Indian tribes located in their boundaries and encourages all State governments similarly to work toward reconciling relationships with Indian tribes within their boundaries.

(b) Disclaimer

Nothing in this section—

(1) authorizes or supports any claim against the United States; or

(2) serves as a settlement of any claim against the United States.

Here is a 2010 story from Indian Country Today: A Sorry Saga: Obama Signs Native American Apology.

Here is Mark Charles latest update on the eighth anniversary of the apology.

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