It is hard to believe that in 2016, our Native American neighbors and friends are still legally subject to a number of hateful and paternalistic federal laws. Unfortunately, that’s the case, but I am working to reverse a list of historic wrongs against Native American citizens brought by the early federal government.

I recently introduced the Repealing Existing Substandard Provision Encouraging Conciliation with Tribes Act, which is referred to as the RESPECT Act. It would repeal a number of historically wrong laws, including statutes that are still on the books related to Native American education, forcible relocation of Native American children to boarding schools and the withholding of rations or money owed to Native Americans. 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.” Clearly, there is no place in our legal code for such laws today.

Federal laws still exist today that would allow for the forced removal of their children to be sent to boarding schools and the parents 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 intoxicated on a reservation.  These statutes actually remain the law of the land. In many cases they are more than a century old and continue the stigma of subjugation and paternalism from that time period.  It is without question that they must be stricken from our legal code. We cannot adequately repair history, but we can move forward.


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.  It’s not always easy, but with our futures tied together and with our children in mind, reconciliation is something we’re committed to.     


While working as governor, I proclaimed 2010 the “Year of Unity” in South Dakota, 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 to bring all races together.


The “Year of Unity” and the “Year of Reconciliation” were efforts to build upon a common purpose, to acknowledge our differences and yet find ways to work together.  Washington, D.C., needs more of that. We can’t change our history, but we can start to change the paternalistic mentality of the federal government toward Native people. Passing the RESPECT Act is the right thing to do, and is one small step Congress can take to heal some of the wrongs imparted upon Native Americans by the federal government.