Sen. Mike Rounds (R-South Dakota), third from left, met with leaders of the Oglala Sioux Tribe and the Rosebud Sioux Tribe in Washington, D.C., on February 4, 2016, to discuss Indian Health Service issues. Photo: Sen. Mike Rounds

Bill aims to restore some 'RESPECT' in dealings with Native people

A Republican lawmaker is leading an effort to repeal 12 federal laws that he says are "racist" and "paternalistic."

Sen. Mike Rounds (R-South Dakota) has only been in the Senate since January 2015. During that time he's emerged as a strong critic of the Indian Health Service in hopes of improving the quality of care for tribal members in his state.

But the freshman lawmaker is also bringing reconciliation -- a concept that's been around in South Dakota for more than two decades -- to the national stage. He introduced a bill last week to erase a set of laws that represent some of the more ill-conceived eras of federal Indian policy.

“These statutes 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,'" Rounds said in a press release on April 13. "There is no place in our legal code for such laws."

The bill is S.2796, the Repealing Existing Substandard Provisions Encouraging Conciliation with Tribes Act, or the RESPECT Act. It targets a dozen outdated laws that were once used, for example, to remove of Indian children from their homes without parental consent, to abrogate treaties and to withhold federal funds from "hostile" tribes.

Watch on YouTube: Sen. Mike Rounds Introduces RESPECT Act on Senate floor

None of the statutes, some of which date to the late 1800s, are actively in use today. Some have clearly been overshadowed by newer laws and policies aimed at promoting self-determination in Indian Country.

But their continued presence on the books is something that must be addressed, according to Rounds, who served as governor of South Dakota for two terms.

"In South Dakota, which is home to nine tribes and roughly 75,000 enrolled members, we strive to work together, to constantly improve relationships and to mend our history through reconciliation and mutual respect," Rounds said. "It is long past time to repeal these antiquated, racist statutes.”

The effort is reminiscent of another reconciliation effort that came from an unlikely source. In 2004, then-Sen. Sam Brownback, a conservative Republican who now serves as governor of Kansas, introduced a resolution to apologize to Native peoples for centuries of mistreatment by the United States.

It took awhile but the resolution became law six years later. And while President Barack Obama and the White House never officially acknowledged it, the apology remains a subject of discussion among activists and scholars like Mark Charles, a citizen of the Navajo Nation who read it aloud at the U.S. Capitol in December 2012.

Mark Charles, a citizen of the Navajo Nation, reads from the official U.S. apology to Native peoples at the U.S. Capitol on December 19, 2012. Photo: Wireless Hogan

"I also know the conversation must go deeper," Charles wrote on his blog last month. "The United States must find a way to talk about the fact that its very foundations are systemically racist and assume the dehumanization of people of color."

Doing more was also the response from the South Dakota Democratic Party. While the party supports the RESPECT Act, executive director Suzanne Jones Pranger accused Rounds of not doing enough to address the real needs of tribal residents of the state.

"Mike Rounds needs to back up his words with action. Otherwise, it’s a paper solution and just another hollow promise of respect never intended to be delivered," Pranger said on Wednesday.

Besides focusing on the IHS, Rounds is co-sponsoring bills like S.2417, the Tribal Veterans Health Care Enhancement Act; S.1771, the Tribal Employment and Jobs Protection Act; and S.248, the Tribal Labor Sovereignty Act.

S.2796, the RESPECT Act, has been referred to the Senate Committee on Indian Affairs. A hearing hasn't been scheduled.

The full text of the remarks that Rounds delivered on the Senate floor while introducing the bill follow:
Mr. President, today I rise to introduce a bill to begin to address the list of historic wrongs against Native American citizens brought by the early U.S. Government.

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. Currently, Native Americans who are U.S. citizens just like you and me are still legally subject to a series of obsolete, historically wrong statutes. These statutes are a sad reminder of the hostile aggression and overt racism that the Federal Government exhibited toward Native Americans as the government attempted to assimilate them into what was considered modern society.

In 2016, laws still exist that would allow for the forced removal of their children, who can be sent to boarding schools, and they can be denied rations if they refuse. They can still be subject to forced labor on their reservations as a condition of their receipt of supplies. Moreover, they can be denied funding if found drunk on a reservation.

These statutes actually remain on the books of the land and, in many cases, are more than a century old and continue the stigma of subjugation and paternalism from that time period. It is without question that they should be stricken.

We cannot adequately repair history, but we can move forward. Because of this, today I am introducing the RESPECT Act or the Repealing Existing Substandard Provisions Encouraging Conciliation with Tribes Act.

I wish to list some of the 12 existing laws that the RESPECT Act will repeal. In Chapter 25 of the United States Code, section 302, entitled "Education of Indians, Indian Reform School; rules and regulations; consent of parents to placing youth in reform school,'' the Commissioner of Indian affairs was directed to place Indian youth in Indian reform schools without the consent of their parents.

The issue of off-reservation Indian boarding schools, in particular, is a rightfully sensitive one for our Native Americans. Between 1879 and into the 20th century, at least 830,000 Indian children were taken to boarding schools to allegedly "civilize them.'' Many parents were threatened with surrendering their children or their food rations. This law, in fact, is also still on the books.

A requirement exists in section 283, entitled "Regulations for withholding rations for nonattendance at schools,'' that the Secretary of the Interior could "prevent the issuing of rations or the furnishing of subsistence to the head of any Indian family for or on account of any Indian child or children between the ages of eight and twenty-one years who shall not have attended school in the preceding year in accordance with such regulations.''

Yet there still exist other outdated laws relating to wartime status between Indians and the United States, such as those found in section 72 of the Code, entitled "Abrogation of treaties.'' Here the President was authorized to declare all treaties with such tribes "abrogated if in his opinion any Indian tribe is in actual hostility to the United States.''

In section 127, entitled "Moneys or annuities of hostile Indians,'' moneys or annuities stipulated by any treaty with an Indian tribe could be stopped if the tribe "has engaged in hostilities against the United States, or against its citizens peacefully or lawfully sojourning or traveling within its jurisdiction at the time of such hostilities.''

Likewise, in section 128, entitled "Appropriations not paid to Indians at war with United States,'' none of the appropriations made for the Indian Service could "be paid to any band of Indians or any portion of any band while at war with the United States or with the white citizens of any of the States or Territories.''

Moreover, in section 138, entitled "Goods withheld from chiefs violating treaty stipulations,'' delivery of goods or merchandise could be denied to the chiefs of any tribe by authority of any treaty "if such chiefs'' had ``violated the stipulations contained in such treaty.''

Finally, in section 129, entitled "Moneys due Indians holding captives other than Indians withheld,'' the Secretary of the Interior was ``authorized to withhold, from any tribe of Indians who may hold any captives other than Indians, any moneys due them from the United States until said captives shall be surrendered to the lawful authorities of the United States.''

In section 130, entitled "Withholding of moneys or goods on account of intoxicating liquors,'' racist identifications tying drunkenness by Indians to receipt of funds still exist, stipulating that no "annuities, or moneys, or goods'' could "be paid or distributed to Indians while they'' were--and, once again, I will quote--"under the influence of any description of intoxicating liquor, nor while there are good and sufficient reasons leading the officers or agents, whose duty it may be to make such payments or distribution, to believe that there is any species of intoxicating liquor within convenient reach.''

Mandatory work on reservations still exists in section 137, entitled "Supplies distributed to able-bodied males on condition.'' Once again, I will quote from the text: "For the purpose of inducing Indians to labor and become self-supporting, it is provided that, in distributing the supplies and annuities to the Indians for whom the same are appropriated, the agent distributing the same could require all able- bodied male Indians between the ages of eighteen and forty-five to perform service upon the reservation, for the benefit of themselves or of the tribe'' in return for supplies.

Let me summarize what I said in the beginning. In the year 2016 in the United States, Native Americans--citizens like you and me--are still legally subject to outrageous, racist, and outdated laws that were wrong at their inception. There is no place in our legal code for such laws.

In my home State of South Dakota, which is home to 9 tribes and roughly 75,000 enrolled members, we strive to work together to constantly improve relationships and to mend our history through reconciliation and mutual respect. It is not always easy, but with our futures tied together, with our children in mind, reconciliation is something we are committed to.

History also proves that since the onset of the government's relationship with the tribes, it has been complicated and challenging over the years, sometimes downright dark and disrespectful, and to this day often has led to mistreatment by the Federal Government.

As Governor of South Dakota, I proclaimed 2010 the Year of Unity in South Dakota. This was done in recognition of the need to continue building upon the legacy and work of those who came before us. The year 2010 also marked the 20th anniversary of the Year of Reconciliation in South Dakota, which was an effort by the late Governor George Mickelson as a way to bring all races together. The Year of Unity and the Year of Reconciliation were efforts to build upon a common purpose, acknowledge our differences, and yet find ways to work together. I suspect we could use a lot more of that in Washington, DC.

While legislative bodies before us have taken steps to rectify our previous failures relative to Native Americans, sadly, these laws remain, and out of a sense of justice, I believe we should repeal them. Imagine a scenario where descendants of those from Norway, Britain, Italy, or any other country for that matter, were treated with the same patronizing air of superiority. Only Native Americans face this discrimination, and it is long overdue to repeal these noxious laws.

I would take this opportunity to urge my colleagues to join me in supporting this bill and to put an end to this blatant discrimination against Native Americans. We can't change our history, but we can start to change the paternalistic mentality of the Federal Government toward the Native people.

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