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Some in Congress Aim to Repeal Old Laws that Discriminate Against Native Americans

J.N. Choate/Barry Goldwater Collection #GI-44, Arizona Historical Foundation, University Libraries, Arizona State University/Heard Museum

A bipartisan effort in Congress seeks to repeal several archaic federal laws that specifically discriminate against Native Americans. KNAU’s Ryan Heinsius reports, many of the outdated statutes were passed more than a century ago. 

Four of the 11 laws that would be repealed by the RESPECT Act allow the federal government to withhold services, funds and nullify treaties with tribes deemed, quote, hostile to the U.S. One law legalizes involuntary manual labor for Native American men. Another lets the U.S. government forcibly relocate tribal children to off-reservation boarding schools run by the Bureau of Indian Affairs.

Most of the laws haven’t been enforced in decades. But some in Congress call them racist and say repealing them would eliminate painful reminders of past mistreatment of Native Americans by the U.S. government.

"They’re archaic but they’re also disrespectful. They were laws written up a long time ago when this was a different nation … We’re trying to take laws that could be enforced in the future and get them off the books," says Arizona Democrat Tom O’Halleran, a cosponsor of the House version of the bill.

Recently, stories have emerged of widespread physical, sexual and psychological abuse in BIA boarding schools. In the 19th century the federal government began sending many Native American children to such facilities to assimilate them into mainstream white culture. It wasn’t until the late 1970s that parents were given the legal right to prevent their children from attending.

Ryan Heinsius was named interim news director and managing editor in January 2024. He joined KNAU's newsroom as an executive producer in 2013. He covers a broad range of stories from local, state and tribal politics to education, economy, energy and public lands issues, and frequently interviews internationally known and regional musicians. Ryan is an Edward R. Murrow Award winner and a Public Media Journalists Association Award winner, and a frequent contributor to NPR's Morning Edition, All Things Considered and national newscast.
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