Can We Reconcile With Reconciliation?

Peter d'Errico

Words are sometimes slippery, especially in law and politics. This is not always a bad thing, because ambiguous language sometimes resolves conflict, by allowing people to maintain face while they compromise. Henry Adams, the famous American writer, wrote, "No one means all he says, and yet very few say all they mean, for words are slippery, and thought is viscous."

Let's look at the word "reconciliation," key to "truth and reconciliation" projects in various countries dealing with the aftermath of historical violence: notably, South Africa after the collapse of Apartheid, and Chile after the Pinochet dictatorship. The Canadian Indian Residential Schools Truth and Reconciliation Commission is similar to these in that it follows the collapse of a system of violence; but it differs in aiming to preserve the government behind that violence.

In South Africa and Chile, successor governments established "truth and reconciliation" commissions to investigate wrongs done by previous governments and thereby to distinguish the new governments from their predecessors. In both situations, the path to political and social harmony was a call to justice by new government, under new policies.

In Canada, the "truth and reconciliation" process is not an act of a successor government. It is an effort to settle thousands of lawsuits by Indian residential school survivors against the government and churches who operated the schools. The government of Canada comes to the "truth and reconciliation" process as the perpetrator trying to settle court action by the victims. Indeed, the Canadian Parliament statement of the commission acknowledges that it "is unique among truth commissions in having been negotiated through the court system." The victims participating in the process are seeking an alternative to the difficulties and expense of litigation and to get immediate financial compensation.

The word "reconciliation" appears sixty times in Parliament's statement, yet is nowhere defined. Instead, the document lists the question, "what is the reconciliation that is hoped for," among "other philosophical and practical questions" about which the parties "will have to engage in debates." The document says, "Various commissions have defined reconciliation in their own way, but a common theme is that reconciliation refers to a new relationship between the parties concerned that emerges as a consequence of the commission and the truth it has reported on. "

The emphasis on "new relationship" is an example of the slipperiness of words, because "reconciliation" is derived from "to reconcile," which the Oxford English Dictionary (O.E.D.) defines as "to restore to peace or unity." The Canadian use begs the question whether there ever was "peace or unity" among the parties. If the relationship between Canada and the churches was adversary to Indigenous peoples from the start, then "reconciliation" is a misnomer. While it is possible to "resolve" a dispute among adversaries, this is different from "reconciliation," which implies prior friendship.

We know the Canadian government and churches were both colonial and hostile; that the boarding schools were part of a crusade to compel Indigenous children to become members of Christian civilization. Canadian boarding schools were in fact part of an over-arching claim of Christian Discovery and Dominion tracing to 15th century papal bulls calling upon Christian monarchs to "capture, vanquish, and subdue … pagans, and other enemies of Christ," to "put them into perpetual slavery," and "to take all their possessions and property."

We should be especially cautious of "reconciliation" in the Canadian context because, as the O.E.D. also shows, the word has special roots in Christian usage: the "sacrament of reconciliation … in which confession is made, penance is given, and absolution is granted by the priest." A cynic might say the Canadian commission is not a reversal of prior abuse, but a subtle extension of it.

Good may come from the willingness of Indigenous peoples to work with—and forgive—those who have abused them; but I write to express extreme caution as we move toward a historical watershed in the United Nations next year, when the Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues will focus on the Doctrine of Christian Discovery that is the foundation of religious-based abuses to Indigenous Peoples worldwide. May it be we can find peace; it will mean we form a basis for friendship for the first time.

Peter d’Errico graduated from Yale Law School in 1968 and served as staff attorney in Dinebeiina Nahiilna Be Agaditahe Navajo Legal Services from 1968 to 1970. From 1970 to 2002, he taught Legal Studies at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst. He currently a consulting attorney on indigenous issues.

You need to be logged in in order to post comments
Please use the log in option at the bottom of this page




michaelmack's picture
The issue of reconciliation is new and unfamiliar to most Americans. Reconciliation is about clearing the air and finding a mutually agreeable resolution. The concept requires opposing sides of an issue together looking objectively at all the facts, listening to everything the other side has to say without accusations or denial, establishing a MUTUAL plan to make restitution and settle the matter(s) once and for all. This is no quick or easy process. Although a handful of churches and individuals in various parts of the U.S. have made efforts to work toward reconciliation with local NDNs, the concept remains largely unheard-of nationally for several reasons. First, it requires an acknowledgement that something is/was wrong. Today, most Americans only have vague ideas about how the Indians were "mistreated" in the past, but they have little factual knowledge, largely because America's educational institutions, Boards of Education, textbooks, and academic publications rarely include the larger narrative of conquest nor its unpleasant details. Connected to this is the rarely discussed reality that the U.S. as we know it, evolved directly from conquest in all its bloody, murderous aspects, and Euro-Americans remain reluctant to think of their ancestors as other than "brave" pioneers, the raw truths of conquest are topics most Americans avoid. Second, conquering cultures do not acknowledge how they achieved conquest until forced to. For example, in the early days after Germany’s defeat in World War II, the average German citizen was in complete denial about the holocaust until the Allies forced all able bodied Germans to physically go into and cleanup the concentration and extermination camps themselves. The Allies FORCED them to get their hands dirty up close and personal, so they could no longer deny it. That is the ONLY reason the German public finally acknowledged that holocaust – had Germans won WW II, today, the world would probably never have heard of that holocaust. Americans have yet to acknowledge there was a holocaust or anything like it on this continent. Third, the practical reality is that conquest is all about economic and material gain, and as long as those gains remain in place for the conquerors - they have no real regrets nor incentives to change, nor to examine how they “won”. In the U.S. and all "successful" conquering nations the legal, economic, educational, religious, and political systems, have been structured to reinforce and affirm the righteousness of conquest and to keep any associated unpleasantness vague and distant. Until the U.S. loses control and until American Indians or our allies win or regain a firm "seat at the table" of U.S. politics, to Euro-Americans true reconciliation with NDN country will remain a non-issue - “unnecessary” not even worth mentioning, and for NDN Country the desire for some kind of reconciliation will, except in a few local isolated instances, remain wishful thinking.
beaver's picture
A mere apology is not enough. They put a LOT of effort into destroying our languages and cultures. Now they need to put greater effort in preserving and protecting our languages and cultures. I don’t see them doing that. Talk is cheap. Actions matter.
michaelmack's picture
Professor thank you for articulating your views on this issue, one that is seldom if ever brought forth. As you are well aware, this issue is just the "tip of the iceberg" when it comes to Indian-white relations in general. Yet it is these very unarticulated issues that are central to the problems that remain and will persist in Indian-White relations. On the Indian side a lot of the problems stem from a lack of understanding the meanings and intend, the political gymnastics that have governed all Euro-American affairs since they become "civilized". Indians took them at their word, but as we all know Euro-American politics is done for their convenience at the moment. In the Indian world truth was not variable, as it was/is in the Euro-American worlds where whether in politics, religion, education, etc. truth is based on current political expediency. Indians need to more fully understand this "fluid" nature of Euro-American truth and ways, in order to address it directly. A more foundation problem in these issues is much like your example in Canada, how can we expect reconciliation or some type of peace based on the real truths of the matter, when, for example, a rapist doesn't believe he's done anything wrong? In this instance the rapist is the U.S. government and those who supported its actions since first contact. Today most government officials and most white Americans respond to our claims saying "well now you all have casinos and you're all rich, so what's the big deal?" "all that stuff happened in the past, I didn't do it"! Indians need to first understand and articulate this history of Euro-Americans denial before we can truly start to work to define "reconcilation" or perhaps more accurately "conciliation" - "to work with opposing parties with the goal of bringing them to an agreement". A quick and easy task? Certainly not, but one that must begin IF the parties have any real desire to establish an ethical and moral effort.