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  • Settler-State Apologies to Indigenous Peoples:A Normative Framework and Comparative Assessment
  • Sheryl Lightfoot (bio)

DURING THE PAST TWO DECADES, an increasing number of states have issued official apologies to Indigenous peoples. The first wave of state apologies to Indigenous peoples began in 1991 when Canada’s assistant deputy minister for Indian affairs offered what may have been the first governmental apology to Indigenous peoples, and the first of three apologies Canada has offered for its century-long Indian Residential Schools program that removed Indigenous children from their homes and forcibly placed them in church-run Residential Schools.1 Shortly thereafter, in 1993, the United States Congress issued an official apology for “the illegal overthrow” of Hawaiian sovereignty in 1893.2 This non–legally binding apology, a joint resolution passed by Congress and signed in a small ceremony by U.S. President Bill Clinton the very same day, acknowledged the overthrow of Hawaiian sovereignty, but it also carefully sidestepped Hawaiian sovereignty claims and did not provide any federal recognition for Native Hawaiians.

In 1997 and 1998, the kings of Norway and Sweden each offered formal apologies to the Sámi people for years of widespread discrimination and injustices committed against them, including forced dislocation, resettlement, and assimilation programs.3 Also in 1998, Canada’s Indian affairs minister Jane Stewart issued a “Statement of Reconciliation,” Canada’s second official “apology” to Aboriginal peoples, which was widely criticized by Aboriginal people as insincere and inadequate. Then, in September 2000, at a ceremony marking the 175th anniversary of the United States Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA), BIA director Kevin Gover gave an apology speech expressing “profound sorrow” for the “historical conduct of this agency.”4

In 2008 and 2009, a fresh wave of apologies to Indigenous people washed over the Anglosphere.5 On February 13, 2008, Australia’s newly elected Labour prime minister Kevin Rudd opened his first session of Parliament with his government’s first official act. With crowds gathered outside and his image broadcast live on television throughout the country, the prime minister rose and delivered an official apology on behalf of the government of Australia to [End Page 15] the Stolen Generations—the Aboriginal children that had been removed from their homes and families under a century-long forced assimilation program. Several months later, on June 11, 2008, the Conservative prime minister of Canada, Stephen Harper, stood before Parliament in the House of Commons and delivered a new “official statement of apology” that he said was offered to Aboriginal survivors of Canada’s Residential School system “on behalf of the government of Canada and all Canadians.”6 The next year, the United States Senate passed a resolution7 apologizing for past policies of the U.S. government toward Native peoples, which was highly criticized by Native Americans for its lack of ceremonial presentation since it was tacked on to a defense appropriations bill and quietly signed, without ceremony, by President Barack Obama on December 19, 2009.8 Meanwhile, highly detailed and ceremonial apologies have been made to Māori claimant groups by the New Zealand government, acknowledging all documented violations of the 1840 Treaty of Waitangi, ongoing since 1992, as standard practice in settling treaty claims.

In 2010, the trend of state apologies to Indigenous peoples extended to Latin America. In January 2010, Chile’s president Michelle Bachelet apologized to the descendants of a group of Kawesqar people, from Chile’s southernmost region. The remains of five Kawesqar, who had been taken captive in 1881 and displayed as curiosities in Europe, were returned to the Kawesqar people for proper burial, accompanied by a formal apology offered by Chile’s president. While the apology was only directed at the descendants of the Kawesqar people, Bachelet did acknowledge that wider mistreatment of Indigenous peoples was the result of Chile’s past racist attitudes.9 In October of the same year, on the 518th anniversary of Columbus’s landing in the Americas, Mauricio Funes, president of El Salvador, offered an apology to the nation’s Indigenous peoples for “the persecution, for the extermination of which they were victims for so many years” under a “reigning model of oppression.”10

Given the notable recent...

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Additional Information

ISSN
2332-127X
Print ISSN
2332-1261
Pages
pp. 15-39
Launched on MUSE
2017-01-01
Open Access
No
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