Undoing Historical Wrongs to Our Native American Citizens
By Sen. Mike Rounds
Imagine a scenario today in which the federal government, with no due process, forcibly removes children of a specific race from their homes and places them into a boarding school more than a thousand miles away from their family and friends. Or imagine the outcry if the federal government were to subject a certain race of citizens into forced labor as a condition of receiving benefits he or she has a treaty obligation to receive. Such patronizing superiority would not be tolerated in today’s society, and there would be a public outcry against such blatant discrimination. Yet these are examples of federal laws which are still on the books today with regard to our Native American citizens. It is time to officially remove these historical wrongs from the books.
In April 2016, I introduced the Repealing Existing Substandard Provisions Encouraging Conciliation with Tribes Act, or the RESPECT Act, and it recently passed unanimously out of the Senate Indian Affairs Committee. The RESPECT Act would reverse a list of outdated, offensive laws against Native American citizens in the United States. In addition to laws that would allow for the forced removal of Native American Children who can be forced into boarding schools and subjecting Indians into forced labor, a law currently exists today where the president is authorized to declare all treaties with such tribes “abrogated if in his opinion any Indian tribe is in actual hostility to the United States.” Another statute calls for the “withholding of moneys or goods on account of intoxicating liquors,” meaning Native Americans can be denied annuities, money or goods if they are found under the influence of alcohol.
These and other statutes that would be repealed under the RESPECT Act are a sad reminder of the hostile aggression and overt racism displayed by the early federal government toward Native Americans as the government attempted to “assimilate” them into what was considered “modern society.” In many cases, these laws are more than a century old and do nothing but continue the stigma of subjugation and paternalism from that time period. Clearly, there is no place in our legal code for such laws. The idea that these laws were ever considered is disturbing, but the fact that these laws remain on our books – is at best – an oversight. I thank Senate Indian Affairs Committee Chairman John Barrasso (R-Wyo.) for all he has done to move the RESPECT Act forward, as well as Rep. Kristi Noem (R-S.D.) for introducing companion legislation in the House of Representatives.
During a Senate Indian Affairs Committee hearing in June, Sisseton-Wahpeton Oyate Tribal Chairman David Flute of South Dakota testified in support of the RESPECT Act, saying that “Native Americans should all be fully included in America as U.S. citizens and citizens of our Native Nations, with respect for our rights to Freedom, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness.” I could not agree more. While we can’t change history, we should do everything we can to make the future better for all Americans. The RESPECT Act is but one long-overdue step we can take in that ongoing effort.