Native Americans have been waiting a long been time for the United States and its state governments to apologize for the violent treatment of their people. On Tuesday, California Gov. Gavin Newsom took that step.
Standing at the future site of the California Indian Heritage Center, Newsom offered an official apology to the Native people of the state in the form of an executive order. The order said the relationship between the state and the Indigenous population is one “fraught with violence, exploitation, dispossession and the attempted destruction of tribal communities,” which Newsom highlighted by reading the 1851 words of Peter Burnett, California’s first governor: “A war of extermination will continue to be waged between the two races until the Indian race becomes extinct.”
The governor then acknowledged the acts of the state’s founders for what they were, and are, without the varnish of Manifest Destiny: genocide.
“It’s called a genocide. That’s what it was: a genocide. No other way to describe it. And that’s the way it needs to be described in the history books,” Newsom said, per the San Francisco Chronicle. “So I am here to say the following: I’m sorry on behalf of the state of California. I’m sorry that we’ve had generations—your kids and grandkids, your ancestors—that had to suffer through the indignities.”
The public admission that the state’s actions amount to a genocide is immensely important. The federal government has long been slow on the draw when it comes to admitting the same—the closest we’ve received thus far is an apology that was tucked away in the Defense Appropriations Act of 2010, in which the U.S. apologized “on behalf of the people of the United States to all Native Peoples for the many instances of violence, maltreatment, and neglect inflicted on Native Peoples by citizens of the United States.”
The issues with that half-hearted gesture were three-fold: 1) it did not come from the government but rather “the people,” 2) it failed to introduce the concept of reparations, either monetary or land-based, and 3) the feds went out of their way to cover their asses, with Congress writing the apology did not support “any claim against the United States.”
In contrast with the U.S. government’s the continuing disdain for self-reflection, two weeks ago, Canada released its long-awaited Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls report; the three-year study found that the crisis, in which law enforcement and local and federal governments routinely ignored reports of violence inflicted against Indigenous women and girls, amounted to a genocide. While conservatives have since tried to undermine the seriousness of the report, the fact that the Canadian government issued this report in addition to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission—a seven-year study that ended in 2015 with a public admission and apology for cultural genocide via the infamous Indian boarding schools (that also plagued the United States)—shows the country’s willingness to engage with the violent blemishes on its record.
Attempting to take meaningful steps to avoid hollow sentiments, Newsom and the California legislature have set aside $100 million for the creation of the forthcoming cultural center. Additionally, Newsom’s executive order calls for the creation of a Truth and Healing Council, which will coordinate the collection of tribal stories and publish a report by 2025 that further details California’s relationship with the Native people who have called the land home for centuries.