04.29.22

South Dakotan Testifies on Behalf of Rounds’ RESPECT Act

WASHINGTON – Tamara St. John, archivist for the Sisseton Wahpeton Oyate and a member of the South Dakota State House of Representatives, testified in support of Senator Mike Rounds’ (R-S.D.) legislation that would repeal discriminatory federal laws targeting Native Americans.

During a legislative hearing of the United States House Natural Resources Subcommittee on Indigenous Peoples of the United States, St. John testified on behalf of S. 789, the Repealing Existing Substandard Provisions Encouraging Conciliation with Tribes (RESPECT) Act which was introduced by Rounds in 2021. The bill unanimously passed the Senate and now awaits passage in the House of Representatives.

“It’s long past time to remove federal laws that are discriminatory to Native Americans from our books,” said Rounds. “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. I thank Tamara for her support and for providing testimony to the House subcommittee overseeing this legislation. As Tamara said in her opening statement, it’s time for the House to pass this bill and get it to the president’s desk.”

The RESPECT Act would repeal 11 outdated federal laws, including laws that stripped Native American children from their families for the purpose of placing them in cruel “Indian reform schools” like the now infamous Carlisle Indian Industrial School.

A full list of laws the RESPECT would repeal is available HERE.

The RESPECT Act is supported by the Great Plains Tribal Chairmen’s Association and the National Congress of American Indians.

St. John’s Remarks as prepared for delivery:

“Good afternoon, Chairwoman Leger-Fernandez, Ranking Member Obernolte, and members of the subcommittee. Thank you for the opportunity to testify in support of Senate Bill 789, the Repealing Existing Substandard Provisions Encouraging Conciliation with Tribes Act, also known as the RESPECT Act.

I wish to thank Senator Rounds who represents my beloved state of South Dakota for providing the leadership on this important legislation. The RESPECT Act can be a base for further work to amend or change federal policies that limit the progress of Native Nations and indigenous people in the United States of America.

Many of us in the Great Plains, and across the country, are excited to see this RESPECT Act finally receive a hearing in the United States House of Representatives. My understanding is this legislation originated out of tribal consultations when Senator Rounds’ staff was working with Sioux Tribes, located in present-day South Dakota, on Carlisle Indian School repatriation efforts. I have often heard it described as being a rare, non-partisan, non-controversial, and no-cost piece of legislation. I thank all of you for giving this legislation the opportunity to be heard.

In 2018, I was elected to my first term in the South Dakota House of Representatives. The day that I stepped onto the floor of the State House, I looked up and saw a painting of the sort that is commonly found in many State Capitals, and done during a time when life was very different in South Dakota. It depicts the typical images of immigrants during the settlement of what was Native homelands for centuries. In the painting above my desk on the House floor, is a Native woman with braids covering her bare chest. There also exists a similar painting of non-tribal women in another location at the Capitol and neither would likely be chosen today to portray the women of South Dakota.

It was very clear to me that this place wasn’t built with me in mind. As a woman in the United States during the late 1800’s and early 1900’s, I would not have been able to vote until the passing of the 19th amendment. As a Native American, I would not have been considered a United States Citizen until 1924. So as a society, we continue to grow and change as needed.

In America, when we know better, we do better.

Senate Bill 789 does just that. It represents the acknowledgement of a past that created hardship and even devastation for indigenous people in the United States.

As a historian, when I relay the history of Native Nations it corresponds directly with Federal Indian Policies such as the Indian Removal Act. My Dakota tribe was removed from the state of Minnesota in 1863 after the Dakota War where Governor Ramsey called for the extermination of the Dakota.

From that era of Genocide, we moved into a period known as Assimilation. It is from this era that some of the laws identified in the proposed legislation come from. The era of boarding schools where many Dakota children were forcibly removed from homes and families to be placed in schools as far away as Carlisle, Pennsylvania. The impacts of this policy are still found within our families today.

In 1889, one Indian Commissioner numbered several ways in which assimilation would be carried out. Things that separated children from communities and outlawed such things like traditional languages and spirituality. The last paragraph stated that “the autonomy of the individual will be enforced above all”, meaning that a person is stripped bare of all the things that identify them as a Native American or Indian person.

When these children returned home, they often were disconnected from their people and families. As one elder once told me, “I knew I did not belong with my people or with white people, I did not belong anywhere,” OR “how do you show love or connection when you’ve never experienced it?” AND “this affected my every relationship from marriage to parent.”

These are the same policies that resulted in a loss of spirituality or prayer. Due to the consequences of these antiquated and overtly racist laws against Native Americans, that are still on the federal books today mind you, you can imagine how much Native people have had to overcome in order to be here today.

We can’t change the past, but we can recognize that today we as a nation know better, and can do better. With these things in mind, I ask you to please vote in support Senate Bill 789 and let’s get this legislation to the President’s desk. Thank you.”

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