Apologies on Discount

Robert Chanate

“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.

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amchaddlesone's picture
Submitted by amchaddlesone on
Ha Ha! I would like to hear what you would say now to that person that comes up to you and stokes your "beautiful Native hair"

darflynn04's picture
Submitted by darflynn04 on
Thank you Mr. Chanate. Thank you for reminding non-native people like me that U.S. relationship destroying history must be addressed by not only apology but by restitution that is agreed to as a remedy by native people who continue to be harmed. Taking this kind of responsibility, and only this, has any hope of re-establishing relationship between our communities and our very humanity. So if we are aiming for more than self-serving absolution from the nearest native person we might impose upon, our social and political acts must speak louder than our apologies. Thank you.

alanh's picture
Submitted by alanh on
The theft of land and murder of First American people by European people is a well documented and horrible fact of history, the effects of which are still being felt today. Discrimination and inequality are not just history, but current problems. But I think that while we cannot forget the past, retribution can only be a small part of the solution. Every society on earth has committed atrocities and had atrocities committed on them. Should I demand retribution from the English for the atrocities committed on my Irish ancestors? Should my Croation relatives get retribution for the many peoples who have overrun them? Should the Anasazi receive retribution from the Paiutes and Shoshone? While I believe we need to right the wrongs of the past where we can, I think the true solution to the problems of today has to be in accepting all people as full partners in working for a better, more equitable life for all. Yeah, I know this isn't very likely, but I think it has to be the goal we strive for.

arezh2o's picture
Submitted by arezh2o on
Robert, It was kind of you and humble for being gentel with your cashier over the apology. And yet how do we stop the on going injustices like life expectencies of 55 years compared to the U S average of mid 80's. I'm a rep for my www.pckangen501.enagicweb.info Healthy Water product that our Native people need to Hydrate their health issues away instead of the Whiteman's Bad Medicine Practice! After the thief of their Lands, the Buffalo and clean water and air. The Native People suffered from their Entirement camps where Army blankets, SSalt laiden foods and sadden Spirits cnotinued their Trail of Tears. Todays Diabetes four times rate of increase amoung our youth is the latest tragic event. Notah Begay is trying to get at the route cause with activity and soccer fields. And yet our young and old are married to the White man's Indian Health Clinics. Instead of their Practice of Pharma Drugs on our young and old for our people. Take a new look at why Another Country like Japan is at the top of the 40 most modern countries Life Expectency at 89 years of age. Is Eastern Medicine stronger than our U S Too Big to Fail our people Indian Bad Health Clinics! The simple cure of making a Health cure water for all our Tribes and then see our young and old revive their spirits and strength. I'm currently talking with Notah's sponsers about his program need of Hydration Water for his youth. And checkout Dr. Coorine Allen on youtube with her The Brain on water. It's a great example of how off track our White Man's medicine is and why Water is needed in our immediate future. Paul Castillo 949-315-0431

charlespurvis's picture
Submitted by charlespurvis on
I too am deeply ashamed of what the white people have done to the Native Americans. I feel no hatred to anyone for killing white eyes for taking the land and the hunting from the Indians and put them on Reservations like animals and lied to them and treated them wrong and expected them to stand by and do nothing, For I am white and ashamed to say so. I hope the spirits of the Indians can forgive such a tragedy the white man put on The Native Americans. Sincerely Charles T. Purvis

bobmuenchausen's picture
Submitted by bobmuenchausen on
"When trading, one side will usually give less if that’s what the other always accepts." A keen observation of human nature. Thank you for that!