“Hi, my name is Pam and I just wanted to say I’m sorry for what my people did to your people” stated my white coworker by way of introduction.
It was my first summer after high school graduation and I was working as a grocery bagger at a Safeway in Boulder, Colorado. The afternoon rush of customers had passed, leaving us workers a bit of free time, which was when the cashier approached me and started the exchange.
Caught off-guard, my first thought was that the cashier was trying to be funny. Taking a harder look at her, I noticed she was scowling so my next thought was she must be some kind of sneaky racist trying to provoke me. We stood there looking at each other for a few seconds.
She continued “I mean, it’s awful what happened. The way we killed so many of the Native Americans and stole your lands. It makes me so angry!” She went on in this way for about a minute before stopping to repeat her apology.
Although I’ve since had many public ambush apologies from non-Native strangers, this was the first for me and I wasn’t sure how to respond. My confusion would have been the same had she told me the telepathic messages she was accidentally sending me had been meant for a police dog in Hollywood. All I could think of to say “Oh, um, yeah, that’s okay” as if the cashier was apologizing for an accidental leg bump instead of for genocide and theft of a continent.
Reassured, the cashier gently grabbed my arm and said “Thank you, thank you.” Unsure of what else to say, I also told her thanks. By then, more customers appeared, ready to pay the cashier for their items.
After thinking about her apology for a bit, I was somewhat touched because it was an acknowledgement of a historical wrong. Hers was a plea for forgiveness for the crimes committed by her people against mine. Neither of us was alive when the crimes happened, but we were descendants, and therefore symbols of both people. As a symbol, the lady represented those who did not ignore historical injustices but wanted to admit to them as a means for healing and understanding. I felt hopeful knowing there were well-meaning people like the cashier who would try to make things right in the best ways they knew how.
Since that time, I’ve come to rethink what makes an apology acceptable for the people to whom it is being offered. In my encounter with the cashier, what was left out of her apology was any comment about a remedy or resolution for the unjust actions about which she was talking. The remedy seemed to be the apology itself. This oversight is to be expected from the average person on the street (or in a store), but what about people with access to economic and political resources? For the latter group, shouldn’t remedies and resolutions be a part of their apology?
Keeping these apologies focused strictly on the past avoids solutions for the present when the current legal, social, economic and political structures can be obstacles for Native peoples. Those obstacles are a direct result of the historical actions that are the subject of so many apologies.
What I’ve also learned from that first awkward apology was that we Native people should be more active in putting forward solutions for those sympathetic people out there. They can’t solve all of our problems but they can help us out when we provide leadership for goals to which they can contribute. If we cannot describe a plan of action for our non-Native supporters, then about all we can expect are well-meaning words and not much else.
With that in mind, if I could return to that moment at the checkout stand, this is what I would say to Pam the Cashier.
“Your words are strong and your spirit is kind. It’s been said our people would one day live happily side by side, like Doritos and Pringles, and not separated by gulf of anger, like frozen pizza and paper towels. This may be that day. But for your apology to be strong like the oak, it should be proven by your actions. You must take on my weekend shifts so I may be freed for ceremonies. Only in this way can balance be restored to our people.”
I’d say that because it’s like this: When trading, one side will usually give less if that’s what the other always accepts.
Robert Chanate is a member of the Kiowa Nation.