Nowhere are the politics of “settler colonialism” more pronounced for me than when I consider the apology syndrome affecting nation-state relations with indigenous peoples in the United States, Australia, and Canada.
§ The 103d United States Congress passed Joint Resolution 19 (Public Law 103-150) on November 23, 1993. The purpose of the Resolution was, “To acknowledge the 100th anniversary of the January 17, 1893 overthrow of the Kingdom of Hawaii, and to offer an apology to Native Hawaiians on behalf of the United States for the overthrow of the Kingdom of Hawaii.” It stipulated to several historical and legal facts regarding the sovereign status of the Kingdom of Hawaii and the U.S. congressional and military backed overthrow of its government, which violated U.S. constitutional and international treaty law. It also provided a disclaimer that, “Nothing in this Joint Resolution is intended to serve as a settlement of any claims against the United States.”
§ In Australia, the members of Parliament passed a motion in February 2008 to apologize to Aboriginals "for the laws and policies of successive parliaments and governments that have inflicted profound grief, suffering and loss on these our fellow Australians.” The motion focused on the painful history, that took place through the 1960s, of the Stolen Generations of Aboriginal children abducted from their homes by the state to become servants for whites.
§ In Canada, a formal apology was delivered by the Prime Minister to First Nations people in June 2008: "I stand before you today to offer an apology to former students of Indian residential schools. The treatment of children in Indian residential schools is a sad chapter in our history…. We now recognise that, far too often, these institutions gave rise to abuse or neglect and were inadequately controlled, and we apologise for failing to protect you…. The government of Canada sincerely apologises and asks the forgiveness of the aboriginal peoples of this country for failing them so profoundly. We are sorry."
§ In December 2009, U.S. President Obama signed the Native American Apology Resolution, which states that the U.S. “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.” It “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.” The Resolution included a disclaimer that nothing in the Resolution authorizes or supports any legal claims against the United States and that the Resolution does not settle any claims against the United States.
The Stolen Generation Action Group in Australia has sought financial compensation through the courts for individuals who were illegal taken from their families and placed in white homes. A lawsuit from victims of Canada’s residential schools resulted in an award of financial compensation, and another has proceeded to court in Newfoundland and Labrador.
But in the United States, the disclaimers about legal or financial culpability in the 1993 Hawaiian apology and the 2009 Native resolution has made it impossible for indigenous peoples within the U.S. and its occupied territories in the Pacific and the Caribbean to make any claims for restitution or reparation, financial or otherwise.
The United States is an imperial power. It is an empire. If you do not believe so in relation to indigenous populations, then consider its military and private security contractors’ activities in South and Central America, northern Africa, and the Middle East. Consider its support of Israel’s occupation of Palestine. From those locations, the U.S. is still acting like and perceived as an imperial empire.
As in Australia and Canada, the U.S. has deployed official apologies to indigenous peoples to coopt the historical and legal implications of its empiric invasion, occupation, and forced assimilation policies to serve its interests.
Whether you read the apologies as articulated through dominant religious dogma about “forgiveness,” or through a more secular humanist claim to the “public good,” what the apologies work to “restore” is not healing and empowerment of the abused and the oppressed. What they work to “restore” is the formation of the very same interpersonal and social structures that uphold the nation-state’s power (like certain kinds of families and certain kinds of communities) and in which violence against women, children, and racialized groups is made possible (rationalizing and warranting ever-expanding forms of state control).
While indigenous peoples have welcomed (for the most part) the apologies as an acknowledgement of the severe historical wrongs and grossly unlawful actions of their nation-states in regards to their self-determination, well-being, and territorial rights, the apologies have completely foreclosed the possibility of any real legal responsibility or reparations of indigenous governance and territories in the context of those wrongs and actions. It is as if the nation-state has submitted its statement in a confessional booth, and expects, in due course, to be forgiven and excused.
In effect, in other words, the apologies have been about amnesty for the imperial state, providing for the operationalization of the empire’s power over indigenous peoples, to disclaim and be recused from any legal obligation or responsibility to redress their historical wrongs and illegal actions in any real kind of way.