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Sacheen Littlefeather, 1973 Oscars

Sacheen Littlefeather, 1973 Oscars. Photo: UCLA Library Special Collections / Wikimedia Commons / CC BY 2.0, license linked below article

Following the apology to Littlefeather for her treatment at the 1973 Oscars, John Clarke comments on the fake remorse used by politicians and institutions to cover-up their continuing crimes

The latest high-profile apology for past wrongdoings by those in positions of power has come from the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences (Ampas), that oversees the Oscar awards. It concerns the treatment of Sacheen Littlefeather, an Indigenous activist who, in 1973, took the stage at the award ceremonies to explain that Marlon Brando was declining his Oscar in order to protest ‘the treatment of American Indians today by the film industry ... and on television, in movie reruns, and also with recent happenings at Wounded Knee.

Her speech at the time ‘was greeted with jeers from the audience, and Littlefeather, then 26, later reported that actor John Wayne had to be restrained by security guards backstage from assaulting her, while other individuals backstage made offensive gestures.’ Ampas has now issued a statement offering its ‘deepest apologies’ for her treatment at the time and announcing that an event focused on ‘conversation, reflection, healing, and celebration’ will be organised to make amends.

It must be fully acknowledged that Littlefeather herself feels that this apology represents a significant step forward and she fully supports it. With the greatest respect for this courageous woman, however, it is necessary to appreciate that apologies of this kind have become quite common, even routine, and that the role they play is open to question. Indeed, it can be argued that the apology for the crimes of the past has been adopted as a way of concealing the crimes of the present.

Past crimes

I happen to live in a country where the official apology for appalling historical wrongs has become a political routine. Canadian governments express remorse with slick ease and the present Prime Minister, Justin Trudeau, is even ready to throw in some theatrical tears when it’s time for one of these performances. When the Pope came to Canada recently to apologise for his church’s role in the hideous mistreatment of Indigenous children in the residential schools, Trudeau had already apologised for the same crimes and had even publicly accepted that ‘Canada’s treatment of missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls amounts to genocide.’

Trudeau, however, didn’t initiate the tactic of the apology. By the time he took office, his right wing Tory, predecessor, Stephen Harper, had already acknowledged the wrongdoings of earlier Canadian governments. Harper issued apologies for the racist exclusion of Chinese immigrants, between 1923 and 1947, and for the shameful internment of 22,000 Japanese Canadians during WW2.

British governments are some way behind their Canadian counterparts, when it comes to atonement for the past but there has been an expression of official remorse for the repressive horrors inflicted on the people of Kenya during their struggle to be free of colonial rule in the 1950s. In 2013, William Hague had to express the British government’s ‘sincere regret’ for the systematic brutality used to crush the Mau Mau uprising. Such overwhelming documentary evidence had been accumulated of these colonial crimes that ‘the British government played its hand as best it could,’ dragging out the process for as long as possible to ensure as many Kenyan victims of the terror as possible had died of old age.

Last year, the German government issued an apology for ‘its role in the slaughter of Herero and Nama tribespeople in Namibia more than a century ago and officially described the massacre as genocide for the first time.’ Though the president of the country described the gesture as ‘historic,’ Herero paramount chief, Vekuii Rukoro, took a very different view. He told media that, without the payment of reparations, the apology was ‘an insult’ and that ‘no self-respecting African will accept such an insult in this day and age from a so-called civilized European nation.’

Recently, the Belgian King appeared before Congo’s parliament and assured the legislators that he regretted the ‘paternalism, discrimination, and racism’ that were involved in the plunder of the country and the slaughter of more than half its population. No reparations were provided but His Majesty was so gracious as to hand over a priceless cultural treasure, taken during the colonial era, returning it on ‘indefinite loan’ to the country it was looted from.

Post-Apartheid South Africa has offered what is perhaps the most internationally renowned effort to come to terms with a dreadful past. The work of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) to address enormous injustices went far beyond the perfunctory apologies set out in the previous examples. A painstaking effort was undertaken to explore and understand the crimes of the Apartheid era and to establish the basis for reparations. Yet, decades later, ‘Most efforts to achieve accountability for crimes committed during apartheid have failed, and to date, the government of South Africa has ignored the TRC’s recommendations on rehabilitation and reparations for victims.’

Calls for museums in imperialist countries to return cultural treasures that were looted during the colonial period are important and entirely justified. It has been noted that ‘The trustees of the British Museum have become the world’s largest receivers of stolen property, and the great majority of their loot is not even on public display.’

A spokesperson for the British Museum has accepted ‘the difficult histories of some of its collections, including the contested means by which some collections have been acquired such as through military action and subsequent looting.’ This comment reflects the obvious reality that denial of the truth is no longer an option and some expression of regret is in order. However, it’s glaringly obvious that an effective response to these ‘difficult histories’ begins with packing up the loot and returning it to those it was stolen from without delay. Token gestures on the past are, therefore, difficult because the present is too close for comfort and this illustrious institution finds itself walking on eggshells.

Fake remorse

It must again be stressed that some very understandable hopes are placed on apologies from governments and other powerful institutions that are implicated in historic crimes. Indeed, such initiatives are not infrequently driven by representatives of oppressed groups who earnestly hope that they will open the way for redress and the tackling of enduring injustices. However, it is necessary to appreciate how little these apologies achieve and, further, to understand the role they play in diverting and weakening movements and struggles.

The great problem with apologies from present day power structures is that they are really displays of contrived remorse for the foundational crimes that the present exploitative and oppressive system rests on. This artificial separation of past and present is useful for those who are only too happy to express sorrow for historic wrongs, as long as it doesn’t go over to accountability for what they are up to today.

What good is it for Justin Trudeau to shed a few tears for the suffering of Indigenous people during the residential school period when prisons across Canada are overflowing with Indigenous prisoners and past colonial injustices continue in different form? The British government offers its dubious regret for the vicious suppression of the Mau Mau uprising in Kenya, even as British companies continue with the looting of Africa during the 21st Century.

Rather than settle for cynical expressions of contrition from the representatives of a system that has changed must less than they would have us believe, far better to take up the fight for real measures of redress and compensation. Our struggle isn’t for fake remorse from those in power but for a just society that doesn’t have to cover its tracks with staged apologies.

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Tagged under: Racism colonialism
John Clarke

John Clarke

John Clarke became an organiser with the Ontario Coalition Against Poverty when it was formed in 1990 and has been involved in mobilising poor communities under attack ever since.

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