A New Conversation: Addressing a 500-Year-Old Wound | Sojourners

A New Conversation: Addressing a 500-Year-Old Wound

On December 19, I am hosting a public reading of the 2010 Department of Defense Appropriations Act. I am doing so because page 45 of this 67-page document contains a generic, non-binding apology to native peoples on behalf of the citizens of the United States. This apology was not publicized by the White House nor by Congress. As a result, a majority of the 350 million citizens of the United States do not know they have been apologized for. And most of the 5 million Indigenous Peoples of this land do not know they have been apologized to.

Throughout his term in office President Obama has made significant and intentional steps to invite Native American leaders to the table and to include them in the national dialogue. For that I am thankful.

I also appreciate the sincere efforts that Kansas Gov. Sam Brownback has made to raise the need for an apology to the Indigenous Peoples of this land.

However, the wording of this apology and the way it was buried in a DOD Appropriations Act was not an appropriate or respectful way to speak to the indigenous hosts of this land. Additionally, it is concerning that this apology was not clearly communicated to the more than 500 indigenous tribes of this country, and especially to our native elders, many of whom personally endured the horrors of boarding schools, re-location, and disenfranchisement.

So, on the third anniversary of the signing of this Act, I have reserved space in front of the U.S. Capitol. On that day, a diverse group of citizens are coming together to publically read H.R. 3326. The appropriations portion of this bill (pages 1–45) will be read by the Native Americans in attendance in an effort to respectfully, yet clearly, highlight the irony of burying such important and historic words in a DOD Appropriations Act.

I am also working to have the apology portion of this Act (sub-section 8113) translated into several Native languages. These translations will be read by some of the non-native people in attendance. This will serve as a reminder that when an apology is made it should be communicated as clearly and sincerely as possible to the intended audience.

This apology is a part of our country's history. Our leaders wrote it, the 111th Congress passed it, and President Barack Obama signed it into law. Then, unfortunately, they buried it. I am not protesting this, nor am I celebrating it. I am merely attempting to publicize it in the most open, respectful, and sincere way I know how.

But I do not want to stop there. Our nation is still hurting and reconciliation is still missing. So I invite you to join me in starting ...

A New Conversation.

Over the years, I have had the privilege to travel throughout much of our country and even to many parts of the world. One question I have been asked is, "How does it feel to be Native American and live in the United States?" I often use this image to articulate to people how it feels:

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 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 us in the bedroom, sits down next to us on the bed, takes our hand, and simply says, "Thank you. Thank you for letting us be in your house."

One thing that has been taken from our Indigenous Peoples has been our ability and the opportunity to be the hosts of this land. In fact, today we are so far removed from the role of host that we often feel like forgotten guests in our own home.

The result of this role reversal is that a huge chasm exists between Native America and the rest of the United States. Pain and misunderstanding are deep, and respect and partnership are minimal.

Following the reading of H.R. 3326 and the apology enclosed therein, I will come forward and share some of my story, concluding with this image of the grandmother in the house. In the past, when I have communicated this image publically, I have frequently been approached by individuals, both Natives and non-Natives. Many Natives have thanked me for articulating our pain in a way they have never had the words for. And many non-Natives have approached me, eager to converse about how they can begin to say "thank you" to the indigenous peoples of this land. I cannot control people’s response nor do I even want to demand it. But I can share my thoughts and then allow space for people to respond and for understanding to grow.

So I invite you to consider my words. I invite you to join us in front of the U.S. Capitol on December 19. And I invite you to respond to my analogy of the grandmother in the house. Together, we have an opportunity to lead our country into a conversation that has never before taken place between the indigenous hosts of this land and the immigrants who have traveled here from every corner of the earth.

This event will not mark the end of the journey but rather the beginning. It is my hope that we can establish safe and honest common ground where “A New Conversation” for reconciliation between Native America and the rest of our country can begin.

To confirm your presence at this event please RSVP on my website, or join our Facebook Page.


Mark Charles is a speaker, writer, and consultant from Fort Defiance, Ariz., located on the Navajo Reservation. You can contact him on Twitter @wirelesshogan.

U.S. Capitol Building, Greg Kushmerek / Shutterstock.com