Accept the responsibility for American history, good and bad, George Pyle writes

The way Indigenous and Black Americans suffered is nothing to be ignored.

(Uintah County Library Regional History Center) Ute boys line up at the Uintah Boarding School in Whiterocks in this undated historic photo.

“I accept the responsibility, but not the blame.”

Richard Nixon

When the soon-to-be former president of the United States said that, along about 1974, he was already a national embarrassment and the reaction was a roll of the national eyeballs. It was clearly part of his “modified limited hangout” approach to the Watergate scandal that was soon to end his presidency, giving up a trail of small bits of truth and contrition in hopes that the American people would just get tired of the whole thing and give up.

It didn’t work.

But there may be some wisdom in Tricky Dick’s turn of phrase after all. A thought we can apply to settling the culture wars that are getting louder and more divisive and threaten to tear us apart as a nation.

Though she may well not be happy with the association (I won’t tell her if you won’t), Interior Secretary Deb Haaland may present all Americans with a chance to accept the responsibility, but not the blame, for something very important indeed on April 1. That’s when she is scheduled to release her report on the sad and sorry history the thousands of Indigenous children who were taken, sometimes at gunpoint, away from their families and culture and placed in any of a series of boarding schools designed to beat, sometimes literally, the Indian out of them. Sometimes fatally.

It’s a tale The Salt Lake Tribune is helping to tell through reporting it has already done and will continue to do, through its search for more memories, as yet unshared, that may tell the full story of this despicable chapter in American history.

The mission of these schools, to “kill the Indian and save the man,” is hardly unique to the United States. Canada is likewise facing up to its dark history of basically kidnapping children to live — and sometimes die — in its so-called schools. And the brutal treatment of Indigenous peoples from Africa to Australia is a fact that modern culture is coming to grips with.

And while the Utah-based Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints was a participant, some might say a beneficiary, of the practice, it was certainly not the only faith tradition to have that shame in its history.

The excuse was that taking Native children away from their parents and extended families, cutting their hair, denying them their heritage and traditions, banning the use of their native languages and teaching them usually menial trades and skills was somehow doing them a favor. It was an only slightly less disgusting idea than the claim that burning women alive because the were thought to be witches was good for them because it sent them to God.

And it simply cannot be denied that the treatment of these Native children, the displacement and outright murder of so many Indigenous peoples, as well as the whole history of the legally established and constitutionally protected — until it wasn’t — institution of slavery can be summed up in two words.

White supremacy.

There is a strain of religious bigotry running through all of this, as people who purported to follow the Prince of Peace justified their genocides as only affecting heathens. But religion doesn’t explain everything. A great many oppressed people adopted one or another of the Christian faiths. Arguably, in the case of the Black American churches, they were even better at it than the white folks were, raising astoundingly joyful noises and clinging to their faith even as terrestrial life never seemed to get any better. (The way our Black fellow citizens held tight to the American Dream even when America didn’t want them to.) And even then people of color, no matter how devout, were treated as less than fully human.

A lot of really disgusting and disgraceful stuff happened. In our nation, in our name, under our laws, on our dime. Dig it up. All of it. Lay it out.

It’s like the Under Armour athletic wear commercial slogan says. The only way is through.

Remember what Supreme Allied Commander Dwight Eisenhower is supposed to have said after the Nazi death camps were liberated at the end of World War II.

“Get it all on record now — get the films, get the witnesses — because somewhere down the road of history some bastard will get up and say that this never happened.”

Those of us living today, and our children, do not and should not bear the blame. But we do bear the responsibility. There’s a difference, despite what people thought of Nixon’s dodge. One wallows in the past. One builds a properly humane and shared future.

The only reason anyone today should feel guilty is if they deny the truth and their responsibility to it. Or because they want to have the option to do it all again.

George Pyle, reading The New York Times at The Rose Establishment.

George Pyle, opinion editor of The Salt Lake Tribune, accepts credit, debit and cash.


Twitter, @debatestate