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Indigenous reconciliation is hard, it re-opens wounds to heal them

Apologies for past injustices issued to indigenous people in Canada, Australia, the United States and New Zealand in the last few decades are signs of progress. butupa/Flickr, CC BY-SA

Indigenous reconciliation is hard, it re-opens wounds to heal them

Australia is being held back by its unresolved relationship with its Indigenous population. Drawing on attempts at reconciliation overseas, this series of articles explores different ways of resolving this unfinished business. We begin today by looking at the significance of reconciliation.


A lot has been invested in the idea of reconciliation, but rarely do we stop to reflect on what the term actually means. Reconciliation implies a process that leads to the end of an estrangement; the restoration of the “right relationship” between two people or two groups.

It involves division giving way to friendship and harmony. Yet the term “reconciliation” suggest no particular rules as to how this takes place. Tellingly, it is silent on questions of justice, such as who gives up what to allow reconciliation to occur.

Reconciliation _may _involve the pursuit of truth or justice, but neither is a prerequisite. Indeed, in some cases, concerns around truth or justice get in the way.

In settler-colonial societies, such as Australia, the pursuit of reconciliation inevitably draws fresh – or renewed – attention to unresolved injustices of the colonial past. By formally addressing the legacy of colonial violence, governments hope to heal the wounds of dispossession and reunite indigenous and non-indigenous peoples within the nation.

Bids to “come to terms with the past” may include a range of measures, such as:

  • raising public awareness of various kinds of injustices and humiliations indigenous people have suffered;

  • making symbolic acts of redress, such as political apologies, which provide public recognition of injustices and a commitment not to repeat them;

  • restoring land and cultural objects;

  • revaluating indigenous culture and its importance to the life of the nation; and

  • attempting to resolve ongoing legacies of colonisation through policy interventions that address indigenous socioeconomic disadvantage.

The purpose of all such measures is to place relations between indigenous and non-indigenous peoples on a different, more just footing. In the absence of reconciliation, indigenous grievances would have little chance of being addressed, let alone resolved, and the colonial state would be unable to overcome the stain of illegitimacy.

A fine balance

While the pursuit of reconciliation will, by its very nature, press settler colonial states towards a difficult confrontation with their own past, it is, in essence, a nation-building project. Reconciliation’s end goal is always unity – the consolidation of the nation-state as an undivided whole: one land, one people.

But in the case of settler societies, such processes have tended to unleash political dynamics that are either difficult to contain within the framework of reconciliation (such as claims for indigenous sovereignty), or that throw the very possibility of reconciliation into question (such as accusations of genocide).

Reconciliation tends to falter in the face of claims for land rights and sovereignty for the simple reason that their favourable resolution guarantees indigenous people will, in one form or another, remain separate from, rather than integrated into, the nation-state.

Similarly, accusations of genocide threaten nation-building by raising the possibility that injustices of the past are so egregious they make reconciliation impossible.

One of the first questions to emerge in every site of settler-colonial reconciliation concerns history: what is it we need to reconcile about? andy solo/Flickr, CC BY-NC-ND

The viability of reconciliation processes in settler-colonial states can, then, depend on how the conflict between indigenous and non-indigenous people is understood.

Does enmity stem from historical practices of discrimination, in which the rights of indigenous people were denied on arbitrary racial grounds? Or does it come from a historical program of extermination, in which the lives (or, at the very least, cultures) of indigenous people were intentionally placed in jeopardy?

In the former case, no more may be required than the belated recognition of indigenous people as full citizens entitled to equal rights and life opportunities. In the latter, nothing short of a radical restructuring of how the two groups stand in relation to one another is needed.

The pitfalls of transformation

One of the first questions to emerge in every site of settler-colonial reconciliation thus concerns history: what is it we need to reconcile about? How ought we understand the history of our relationship until now?

The tendency for reconciliation processes to get drawn into the very conflict they were designed to resolve is one of great ironies of the politics of conflict transformation. Whatever it may have initially promised, reconciliation has become a site of political contestation in which competing viewpoints, including what reconciliation itself actually means, vie for dominance.

In societies such as Australia, the longer it remains the favoured trope for thinking about the future of indigenous/non-indigenous relations, the more apparent it becomes that the settler-colonial state is divided in ways that both necessitate reconciliation and undercut the chances of achieving it.

This isn’t to say there are no moments when the cause of reconciliation looks to have been decidedly advanced. Apologies for past injustices issued to indigenous people in Canada, Australia, the United States and New Zealand in the last few decades provide arresting examples of precisely such progress.

But the fact that such moments are invariably followed by claims of “unfinished business” is a salutary reminder of the potential for the past to be perpetually re-contested and to throw up ever-new sources of grievance.

For the time being at least, the state of reconciliation – or the reconciled state – seems destined to remain an incomplete project; the always deferred “not yet” of the receding post-colonial horizon.


This is the first article in our series on efforts towards indigenous reconciliation in settler countries around the world. From tomorrow, look out for snapshots of how far various countries have come.