During my time working as your governor and now U.S. senator, I’ve had the privilege of establishing friendships with tribal members from all nine reservations in South Dakota. As governor, Jean and I invited tribal leaders to our home to simply break bread and get to know each other on a personal level. It’s a small thing, but we’ve also made a concerted effort to employ tribal members and people with close ties to the reservations on my staff. I believe those personal relationships help me better understand the challenges facing our tribal communities. It has been an honor to spend time — sometimes simply driving the backroads — with tribal leaders concerned about water quality, education or roads. We’ve discussed many critical and immediate concerns but one issue that has touched my heart is the emotional toll that our sometimes-dark history continues to have on our Native American neighbors today. We can’t change the past but we can continue to reconcile with it, and each other.
Throughout history, Native Americans have been subjected to federal laws that are offensive, immoral and outright racist. For example, there are federal laws in place that allow the government to forcibly remove Native American children from their homes and send them to boarding schools. There are also laws that allow the government to push Native Americans into forced labor as a condition of receiving benefits. It’s shocking to read through some of the old laws that made their way through Congress and were signed into law.
Sadly, a number of these laws are still on the books today. While they are not enforced, there is no reason for them to be a part of our federal code. They are a tragic reminder of past hostility and racism toward Native Americans.
Since 2016, I have introduced legislation called the RESPECT Act that would repeal a number of these outdated laws related to the treatment of Native Americans. Last Congress, my bill passed out of the Senate Indian Affairs Committee unanimously, and passed the full Senate unanimously. Unfortunately, the House of Representatives ran out of time at the end of last Congress to pass it.
That is why I introduced it again this Congress, this time with bipartisan, bicameral support. In the Senate, I was joined by Sens. Kyrsten Sinema (D-Ariz.) and James Lankford (R-Okla.) in introducing it, and the House version of the bill was introduced by my friend Rep. Dusty Johnson (R-S.D.) along with Reps. Tom Cole (R-Okla.) and Tom O’Halleran (D-Ariz.). We have strong bipartisan, bicameral support this time around, and I’m optimistic we’ll be able to get it across the finish line and signed into law by President Trump.
We can’t rewrite the past. But we can keep working together toward furthering respect and unity for the next generation. It’s our duty to do everything we can to make the future better for all Americans. Passing the RESPECT Act is one small way we can show understanding, compassion and progress. I’ll keep pushing this legislation forward because it’s long-past time for these bills to be removed from the federal code of laws.