Apathy, Apologies and Atonement: How California’s Apology Was Warranted but Long Overdue

On Tuesday, June 18, California Governor Gavin Newsom finally did what should have been done a long time ago. He apologized to Indigenous people. This apology was warranted, yet long overdue. 

In 1850, when California became a U.S. state, it launched approved and abetted campaigns against the indigenous people. These campaigns stripped Native people of the right to vote and of due process, legalized indentured servitude and made it possible to remove them from their own land. To enforce these campaigns and continue to move the needle toward their intention to take what wasn’t theirs, the state paid militias to hunt down and kill Native Americans.

California’s first governor, Peter Burnett, declared in 1851 that “a war of extermination will continue to be waged … until the Indian race becomes extinct.” Extermination! Ben Medley, a scholar of Native American History at UCLA calls this genocide and estimates that between 1846 and 1873, about 80% of the state’s Native Americans died from murder, starvation and disease.

It is for this that Governor Gavin Newsom apologized. During a blessing ceremony at the site designated for the California Indian Heritage Center, he formally apologized for the state’s historical role in these atrocities committed against thousands of Native Californians, for this country’s history of “violence, maltreatment and neglect.”

Newsom’s apology was accompanied by the formation of a Truth and Healing Council that will hear testimony and seek to clarify the historical record. More states must follow his lead.

As a member of the Lumbee Tribe, I can honestly say that Newsom’s actions and genuine apology were welcomed and warranted and I’m hoping serious dialogue around strategies for addressing systemic issues impacting Native communities continues. I advocate as well for the African-American community, because this community was similarly affected by behavior motivated by greed and hate. Like Native people, Black people have endured and continue to endure generations of abuse.

On June 19, Juneteenth Day, author Ta-Nehisi Coates spoke at a Congressional House hearing on reparations. He testified on H.R. 40, a bill that would establish a commission to study reparations. It’s the first such hearing in more than a decade.

While Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell has stated, “America should not be held liable for something that happened 150 years ago, since none of us currently alive is responsible,” I’m quite thankful Governor Newsom has some sense to think and act otherwise because we know the root issue here isn’t just who did what to whom, but one of economics and wealth, and this affects those of us alive today, include McConnell and those who think like him.

This country has been and continues to be traumatized by the accumulation of wealth that was derived off the backs of Indigenous and Black communities. For the most part, these communities are expected to just “get over it” with no process of healing, of which acknowledging reparations AND offering simple apologies are two methods!

By 1836, more than $600 million was derived directly or indirectly from the cotton produced by the million-odd slaves. By the time the enslaved were emancipated (“officially” June 19, 1865), they comprised the largest single asset in America. This was almost half of the economic activity in the U.S., more than all the other assets in the country combined, and worth three billion dollars back then.

This wealth has stayed with the communities who originally stole in order to receive it, this insidiousness has infected our country with a deadly disease. This colonizing virus has in fact, shaped every crucial aspect of the economy and politics of America. Including philanthropy.

So, what can we do? Apologizing is one step. This is easy. Many can do it. Reparations is another. Decolonizing wealth, especially that involved in philanthropy, is the next. Because strangely enough, our philanthropy model keeps hurting people. Oftentimes, those billions of dollars used for funding came from the work of enslaved people and that money is perpetually given to others to help them to just keep on pillaging. It is not given back to help the very communities who deserve it.

In my book, “Decolonizing Wealth”, I describe how money can be medicine. In the Indigenous worldview, many kinds of things can be medicine: a place, a word, a stone, an animal, a natural phenomenon, a dream – decolonizing funding, investing in ways that come from behind colonial shadows and move beyond old boy networks and white savior complexes are also doses of medicine this country desperately needs to take. 

I believe we can heal, that we can move beyond America’s original sin – and to begin, we must reckon with the past. Now. 

 Edgar Villanueva (@VillanuevaEdgar) is an author and social justice philanthropy expert. He serves as on the boards of Native Americans in Philanthropy, NDN Collective and the Andrus Family Fund and is vice president of programs and advocacy at The Schott Foundation


Edgar Villanueva