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Winona LaDuke , Published January 18 2014

Letter: Essentials: remorse, gratitude

Remorse and gratitude are fundamental and essential emotions that allow us to live well. I could say “function in society,” but that seems too clinical.

Remorse: to feel sorry, to express regret; (minjinawezid: he is regretful). Gratitude: to be thankful (migwechiwendam).

We need these emotions, and we need to express them. Then we can have empathy for others; we are able to live with more joy.

I realize that my own children at times lack these emotions. I witnessed my teenage sons, and my other children at times, being unable to say they were sorry, or not accepting or realizing that self-centered or mean behavior affects others.

I have witnessed lack of gratitude and inability to say “thank you.” I was raised by gracious parents, and that these are essential expressions, despite the difficulty at times. I make mistakes, and I forget to be thankful. I do not wish to be a bad parent, yet know that if a generation of children is raised without emotional skills, things will not go well. That’s what may be going on.

My grandson sometimes has had a difficult time saying he is sorry. He is 7 years old. When asked to say he is sorry, there is sometimes pouting, and then a time out, until the magic words “I’m sorry” come forth from that little pouty guy.

What does this mean in the larger context? It is a societal problem. From an indigenous perspective, we are aware of it. The 1890 massacre at Wounded Knee was egregious. Three hundred people were killed, many of them stripped of their clothing, which ended up in museums. There were 23 Congressional Medals of Honor awarded to the military for the massacre, in which four Hotchkiss guns were used by 500 members of the 7th Cavalry. Just as a reference, nine Medals of Honor have been issued for the war in Afghanistan.

When descendants of survivors of the Wounded Knee massacre asked then-South Dakota Sen. Tom Daschle for a congressional apology, he said. “We really can’t do that; if we did that, we’d have to apologize to a lot of other people, too.” So in 1990, Congress issued a joint resolution that “expressed regrets.” South Dakota has since had a Year of Reconciliation, but really, the remorse thing has not worked out.

Then there is the Chevron Corp. in Ecuador. It is confusing, but let’s say Chevron buys Texaco company’s assets in the country, and Texaco has left a mess – rivers full of oil, toxins in holding ponds, piles of oil garbage, and a lot of people who are not able to eat fish from their rivers, and a lot of people who are sick. (This sounds, unfortunately, a bit like North Dakota will look, perhaps in 20 years.)

Texaco is bought up by Chevron, and the villagers now have to go after Chevron. After a legal battle, which Chevron wants in Ecuadorian courts, the courts rule Chevron is liable for $9.5 billion in damages. Chevron appeals. The court doubles the fine, suggesting lack of remorse by the company, essentially, is causing additional hardship to the plaintiffs, who have been awarded the settlement (about half the BP settlement, just for reference).

Then, as the New York Times notes, “Chevron said … that it had no intention of apologizing for the environmental damage to the Amazon rain forest for which an Ecuadorean court ruled it responsible. Attorneys for both sides said if Chevron apologized, its legal liability of $18 billion would have been cut to $9.5 billion. The company’s position: “Chevron does not believe that the Ecuador ruling is enforceable in any court that observes the rule of law.”

And investors, according to business journals, “seem not to believe that the award, the second-largest environmental damages award ever imposed on an oil company will be paid.” Nice to know.

That’s Ecuador now, but after watching a number of U.S. corporations declare bankruptcy and then re-organize rather than pay fines, I might be concerned. I might be really concerned if I lived in North Dakota.

On gratitude: We are a First World country of the premiere kind. This means we get food and resources from all over the world. We have health care, malls and lots of stuff. We usually want more. We shop. In fact, 71 percent of our economy is based on consumption.

Are we grateful? That’s what I worry about. My sons have a room full of clothes on the floor, which they will leave there if I’m not after them. I worked to buy those clothes; it looked like they needed them. But that’s America. We have a lot of stuff, and we throw out a lot of it. We make a lot of garbage.

It’s a nice planet, and I’m grateful to be here.

So there you go: remorse and gratitude, two special words we should remember from “Sesame Street,” church – or maybe just learn.

LaDuke is executive director, Honor the Earth, and an Ojibwe writer and economist on the White Earth Reservation in Minnesota.