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Mark Charles: Working towards reconciliation with Native people

Filed Under: Opinion
More on: apologies, barack obama, dc, mark charles

Reconciliation is never easy, which is why it doesn't happen very often. Reconciliation is not something that can be checked off of a list. It is not a single event encapsulated in a moment of time. Reconciliation begins with a conversation and ends with a relationship restored.

It was the morning of December 19, 2012, and I am standing in front of the US Capitol building in Washington DC. I had reserved that space months in advance so I could host a public reading of H.R. 3326, the 2010 Department of Defense Appropriations Act. I did this because page 45 of this 67 page document contained an "Apology to Native peoples of the United States." In three years this apology had not been announced, publicized, or read by either the White House or the 111th Congress.

When I first learned about this apology, I was appalled that it had not been communicated clearly and respectfully to its intended audience. I resolved to do whatever I could to make this apology public. I felt very strongly that every native person in this land deserved the respect of being told this apology existed. I also felt they deserved to hear it read from the seat of power of our country. And because our leaders had not done this, I decided to do it myself.

But I did not intend to stop there. Protest and publicity were not my goal. I wanted reconciliation, and initiating a conversation was the only way I knew to get there.

So for the past year, I traveled, spoke, and wrote about this apology. I made phone calls, visited offices, and sent letters to both US and tribal elected officials. I sent a personal invitation to President Obama and spoke on the phone with Governor Brownback (KS), who as a Senator initiated this apology and inserted it as an amendment into H.R. 3326. I sent out press releases to media and news organizations and did interviews.

I knew after living on the Navajo reservation for nearly a decade that any real conversation for reconciliation between the United States and indigenous peoples would be extremely difficult. With over 500 years of wars, broken treaties, marginalization, unjust policies, forced assimilation, relocation, boarding school, and for some tribes even genocide, I knew this conversation was not suited for those who were not personally committed to it. So I made the intentional choice to cast my invitation for this event as far and wide as I could, but also decided not to pressure anyone to attend. I wanted people to know about what I was doing, but I did not want to have to twist anyone’s arm to be there.

And that morning, I saw the fruits of my labor and the results of my choices. There were no elected officials present, very few leaders of organizations or institutions, and virtually no national or even local media. But I was thrilled that over 150 people, mostly from the grass roots level, had made the effort to join me.

We began the event by reading some of the Appropriations sections of H.R. 3326. I clearly and solemnly read the first few sections, including the excerpt below.


Military Personnel, Army

For pay, allowances, individual clothing, subsistence, interest on deposits, gratuities, permanent change of station travel (including all expenses thereof for organizational movements), and expenses of temporary duty travel between permanent duty stations, for members of the Army on active duty, (except members of reserve components provided for elsewhere), cadets, and aviation cadets; for members of the Reserve Officers’ Training Corps; and for payments pursuant to section 156 of Public Law 97-377, as amended (42 U.S.C. 402 note), and to the Department of Defense Military Retirement Fund, $41,005,612,000. (H.R. 3326)

I have to admit, I felt a little ridiculous. Here we were in front of the US Capitol Building, many of us had traveled thousands of miles, at our own expense, to publicize this apology and initiate this conversation for reconciliation. Our reading had been prefaced by a beautiful Navajo prayer song and our backdrop was the US Capitol building and 2 wonderful works of art, hand painted by artists depicting the situations and the histories that we were attempting to reconcile. We were broadcasting live on YouTube and numerous people had their cameras out, capturing what was taking place. This picture – the art, the people, the location - was deep, costly, beautiful, diverse and full of meaning.

But the words of a DoD Appropriations Act were completely out of place.

One by one, Native Americans came forward and solemnly read the appropriations from H.R. 3326. As I stood there, listening to our native people, some of them boarding school survivors, walk up to the microphone to respectfully read sections of the appropriations act, I wanted to cry.

This event was turning out to be one of the best forms of protest I could have possibly imagined. We were not angry, nor were we pointing fingers. We weren’t even holding picket signs. We were simply solemnly, respectfully, and publicly reading the 2010 Department of Defense Appropriations Act…

…and the apology enclosed therein.

After the reading of section 8112, I came forward, and, without pause or introduction, read Section 8113 “Apology to Native peoples of the United States.” That was immediately followed by readings of the apology translated into Ojibwe and Navajo. It was incredibly moving to hear the words of the United States Congress, apologizing to Native peoples, being read in Native languages in Washington DC directly in front of the Capitol Building. It was an historic moment…

…that not a single elected official from the US Government attended. Every invitation I had delivered, to President Obama, Governor Brownback, many members of the United States Senate and House of Representatives; every one them had either been ignored or declined. No one was willing to step forward and publicly acknowledge and read the apology which they had buried in H.R. 3326.

As a result, for those in attendance and those watching online, even without explanation, our message was clear. This apology was disrespectful. It was insincere, self-protecting, and specifically worded and communicated so those giving it could not be held accountable for its content. It may have contained words like “regret” and “reconciliation,” but the context of the apology and the silence (and absence) of those who gave it, made it clear - those words had very little meaning. (H.R. 3326: Sec 8113)

So I stepped forward and did what I felt I had to do. I didn’t want it to come to this. I have deep respect for President Obama and Governor Brownback, as both men have gone far beyond their predecessors in reaching out to native peoples. And I had hoped and prayed up until the last moment that one of them would step forward to take ownership of these words. But they didn’t. So I took the microphone and encouraged our Native leaders, communities, and people to not accept this apology.

I was not trying to be divisive, nor was I trying to shame President Obama or our nation. But I did have an understanding of the situation and an appreciation for who my audience actually was. This event was not about me, nor was it about President Obama, Governor Brownback, or the 111th Congress. This event was about the relationship between indigenous peoples and their colonizers throughout the world. And my audience was not just the 150 people standing in front of me, it was the entire globe.

The United States of America is a leader in this world; our words are scrutinized and our example is followed. If Native Americans were to accept this apology, in the vague, politicized, disrespectful, and self-protecting way it was given then we would be condoning our government’s actions and making a model of their methods. We would be communicating to indigenous peoples everywhere that we are still subservient to our colonizers, that we are not their equals, and that we should just be grateful for whatever scraps they bother to throw our way.

I could not let that message get communicated. I have too much respect for myself, for my elders, for my country, and even for my elected officials. So I took a stand, and encouraged our Native peoples to not accept this apology. Not out of anger, bitterness, or resentment, but out of respect. Native peoples deserve better and our country can do better.

I honestly do not think the United States of America is ready to apologize for its history with Native Peoples, but that does not mean a conversation for reconciliation cannot begin. I often tell people that...
…being Native American and living in the United States feels like our indigenous peoples are an old grandmother who lives in a very large house. It is a beautiful house with plenty of rooms and comfortable furniture. But, years ago, some people came into our house and locked us upstairs in the bedroom. Today, our house is full of people. They are sitting on our furniture. They are eating our food. They are having a party in our house. They have since unlocked the door to our bedroom but it is much later and we are tired, old, weak and sick; so we can't or we don't come out. But the part that is the most hurtful and that causes us the most pain, is that virtually no one from this party ever comes upstairs to find the grandmother in the bedroom. No one sits down next to her on the bed, takes her hand, and simply says, "Thank you. Thank you for letting us be in your house." (YouTube: A New Conversation)

Reconciliation is never easy, which is why it doesn't happen very often. Reconciliation is not something that can be checked off of a list. It is not a single event encapsulated in a moment of time. Reconciliation begins with a conversation and ends with a relationship restored.

I started an online petition on the White House website, calling on President Obama to retract the apology that was buried in H.R. 3326 and instead to join this conversation for reconciliation. I urge you to consider my words and join me in signing it. If this petition receives more than 25,000 signatures within 30 days, the White House will respond to it, and hopefully our President and our nation will join this conversation.

If you would like to cut and paste the short URL link to email, FB, Twitter or other social media here is the link:

Mark Charles can be reached by email at, on Twitter at Wirelesshogan and on the web at

Related Stories:
CNN: Mark Charles reads official US apology to Native peoples (12/19)

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