A while back my APUSH class was studying the Dawes Act. The Dawes Act is maybe best known for establishing the system of Native American reservations we have today. But it also instituted a system of boarding schools whose purpose was to forcibly assimilate the Native American population of the west. The residential schools founded after the Dawes Act perpetrated every kind of abuse on their students, and many of my students were shocked not only to learn that they’d existed, but also to realize they’d never heard anything about them before.
As I was Googling around that night on the subject, I learned that Canada had dealt with a parallel aspect of its own past just two years ago. In 2015, the Canadian government held a Truth and Reconciliation Commission to investigate its 19th-century residential schools, to apologize formally to the survivors of those schools, and to make recommendations for helping to undo the cultural decimation that resulted from the residential school system.
This got me thinking that it might be interesting to do a series on truth and reconciliation commissions, or more broadly, what we can do when we encounter history that is, simply, atrocious. How do we as nations and communities deal with things like slavery, massacres, forced sterilization, disappearances, etc.? How do we look the ugliness in our past square in the face, deal with it, and move forward? What do we do with that knowledge? What moral obligations does knowing confer? This seemed to me a natural extension of learning about history, and so the Truth and Reconciliation Speaker Series was born!
Throughout the spring semester, students will participate in conversations with people who are either experts on or who have been directly involved with truth commissions and/or the process of transitional justice. I’m completely delighted that the response to this series has been so enthusiastic, and I think we have some really interesting and compelling people lined up. Here’s the tentative schedule:
January 20: Beth Healey of Northwestern University will join us via Skype. I knew Beth in graduate school, and she works on Nazi Germany and the legal process by which the world dealt with the warcrimes perpetrated during the Second World War. Beth will also introduce students to the concept of transitional justice.
February 3: Ron Slye, of Seattle University School of Law, will join via Skype to talk about the post-Apartheid Truth and Reconciliation Commission in South Africa. Professor Slye was an international law consultant to the South African Truth, Justice, and Reconciliation Commission, and in 2009 he was chosen by Kofi Annan to work as one of three commissioners on the Kenyan Truth, Justice, and Reconciliation Commission.
February 17: This date isn’t confirmed, but Tricia Logan of the Canadian National Centre for Truth and Reconciliation, who worked with the commission in 2015, will join us via Skype as well. Ms. Logan is also the Curator of Indigenous Content at the Canadian Museum of Human Rights.
(Date TBD): Mrs. Joyce Johnson, of the Beloved Community Center in Greensboro, North Carolina, will join us, once again via Skype. Mrs. Johnson was closely involved with the only Truth and Reconciliation that has to date occurred in the United States, in response to the 1979 Greensboro Massacre.
March 17: Diana Esther Guzmán Rodríguez of Stanford University will join us in person, to discuss The National Committee of Reparation and Reconciliation, which exists to investigate internal armed conflict in Columbia.
I’m hoping to get a few more folks in to talk about the possibilities for such a commission in the United States, but this is the line-up so far! I’ve been really excited to share this announcement, and I hope it gets my students (and coworkers) thinking about how much history exists just below the surface of our everyday lives. I’ll be reporting back after each session, so stay tuned!