As a young teacher, in my late 20’s, our school system instituted a curriculum called “Unit Step” that, among other things, divided the subject of American History into 6-week, mini-courses. I loved the idea and credited that change with saving my teaching career, because teachers could pick and choose our favorite eras of American History and teach about them.
For reasons I did not understand at the time, but do now, I had always been drawn towards the history of the peoples who lived on this continent before my European ancestors arrived. The class I created was called “Pre-Colonial American History.”
As I gathered information and studied that period from primary sources (original letters, and documents, contemporary news reports, etc.) I became graphically and shockingly aware of the parts of American History, as it related to my ancestors’ interactions with the Native Peoples, that I had not learned about up to that point in my education. In the process of those discoveries of our history, I became painfully and shockingly aware of the dire conditions that they, then, and to this very day, are living under.
As teachers (at least this teacher) are inclined to do, one day I was sharing with the class some of those “facts” about the Native People’s contemporary experience, hoping that I could inspire one or more of them to “do something to fix it.” As I was doing my best to “preach” them into caring and to take action to fix things, one of my favorite students, Jill, (I’ll never forget her, that moment, where she was sitting or what she said) raised her hand and with a challenging energy (maybe a bit sarcastic?) said, “You seem to care so much about all this, why don’t you do something about it yourself, instead of laying it on us?” My original thought, was “you little brat, I’m the teacher here, how dare you challenge me like that, IN PUBLIC, no less.” Thankfully, I just nodded my head and mumbled something designed to change the subject. But I couldn’t get away from that comment. I still haven’t been able to get away from that comment, and it’s 50 years later. She and I and a dozen of her classmates ended up going to the Dine, or Navaho peoples, to a little village called Chilchinbeto that summer and “did something”. I’ve been doing “something”, every year, since then.
The last two decades I have gone to the Lakota, Pine Ridge reservation in South Dakota, with groups of people as we “do something.” This last year, in addition to some of the things we usually do to support the people there, I read what you see below.
A friend of mine, Tony Scruggs introduced me to something that Marianne Williamson, (the presidential candidate who, in my opinion, is far too spiritually, mentally and emotionally healthy to ever be selected as our country’s president) has shared with members of the American family who have been very obviously been used, abused and continue to be traumatized by our country. That something that Tony introduced me to was what she calls “The Prayer of Apology to African Americans” https://marianne.com/prayer-of-apology-to-african-americans/.
There is talk these days about reparations to those people who have been victimized by attitudes, beliefs and behaviors of our country’s dominant culture on our way to making America “great.” I believe in making apologies where apologies are due. The following is my adaptation of the Apology that I was able to share directly with a Lakota man I consider my friend and brother, Guss Yellowhair, his family, his loved ones, and to his people.
To those of you who don’t know of the details of our history with the native peoples, this apology will give you a “Cliff’s Notes” version.
Prayer of Apology to
The Native People
On behalf of myself and the others gathered here, to you personally, and all the Native Peoples and in honor of your ancestors, for the sake of your children, and on behalf of myself, and my ancestors, please hear this from my heart...
Please forgive me.
In this moment I want to acknowledge the depth of evils that have been perpetrated against you and the Native peoples in America. From physical abuse, to the intentional introduction of diseases via knowingly infected blankets and clothing disguised as items of warmth and comfort transmitting deadly diseases to which your people had no immunity, done so with the deliberate purpose to destroy your people, to the introduction of alcohol and other drugs as a form of ethnic cleansing that have and continue to rob you of your parents, brothers, sisters, Aunts, Uncles and your children, for mutilating your women and children, elders and the unborn babies, using their body parts for games and decorations for our hats, to not honoring our commitments to you – ever. Commitments and promises to provide adequate food, and lodging in exchange for peace and your home lands, and our never respecting agreements you made in good faith, to stealing of your home lands over and over and over again, dismissing your heritage, disrespecting your way of life, outlawing your ceremonies, prohibiting you from using your language, making it illegal to practice your spirituality, for taking your young children from you and sending them to boarding schools with the expressed purpose to remove anything of their ancestry and culture in them, for exposing them to the neglect and unspeakable abuses of the boarding schools and religious organizations, to providing inferior food that no one else wanted, to the lynching’s, to massacres of innocent children, women, and men, to in-humane laws, to the stealing of hope resulting in astronomical suicide rates among your young people, to the denial of voting and property rights, to the physical and emotional and sexual abuse inflicted upon you, to the mocking of your peoples by the promotion of stereo-types, the naming sporting teams using caricatures of you and your people to represent them, to all the ways both large and small, that abuses have and continue to occur — all of them evil, every one of them wrong.
For all the oppression and all the injustice...
please forgive me.
For promoting the idea that you as a people were sub-human, for forcing you then and now to use Americanized names if you want to belong to our world instead of your own sacred gifts of identity from your elders, to use the customs and cultures such as gift giving in derisive and derogatory ways, to appropriate parts of your culture and sacred ceremonies that we want, to for the denial of human and civil rights, for inequities in criminal justice, for instances of police brutality, for the denial of opportunity, for economic injustice, for manipulating, and continuing to manipulate your people in ways that cause you to turn against each other, for all the ways that racism has and continues to promote these wrongs...
For the silence of my voice and absence of my actions as these things have continued to occur in my own lifetime and in my own culture and in my world…
please forgive me.
Here, in this moment, I acknowledge the beauty and genius of your culture, the power and genius of those who came before you, of your children and all your descendants. In this moment, I ask of the Great Mystery that you be blessed, protected and honored.
That your babies be blessed, protected and honored
That your young men be blessed, protected and honored.
That your young women be blessed, protected and honored.
That all your parents, grandparents, and elders be blessed, protected and honored
That all your relatives be blessed, protected and honored
That your descendants be blessed, protected and honored
That all your ancestors be blessed, protected and honored
That all you, your men, your women, children, and all your relatives be surrounded by the protective spirits
May we continue a great healing
A healing of the relationship between the Native people and white Americans is in our hands.
May we lift each other high above the walls that divide us.
May our hearts be awakened to the truth of our oneness.
May racism and prejudice be no more, dissolving in the presence of our love.
May we come together in ways like this and heal our hearts.
To you, my brother, my sister, please accept my apology on this day.
My apology is to you, your grandparents, their grandparents before them, and their grandparents before them.
May the screams that were not allowed, be allowed now.
May the cries that were never heard be heard now.
May the tears that were never seen be seen now.
May the voices that were not allowed, be honored now
In this sacred moment, may the healing begin.
With this apology, my voice is no longer silent
May it always speak the truth
May the truth spoken here, continue to heal us all.
--Adapted from Marianne Williamson
Within the last three years I’ve been challenged to try to make things better in overt and positive ways by speaking up. I have also realized I can acknowledge the wrong that is a part of my legacy and make amends when possible. There’s an old song from my childhood that goes, “...brighten the corner where you are…” and that is something else I can try to do.
If you have been equally challenged, let me know what you are doing to make things more just, more fair, more equal.