3 Horrendous Anti-Indigenous Laws

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by Britnae Purdy

Much of the discrimination that Indigenous Peoples face is societal and economic, such as personal racism, discriminatory hiring practices, a misunderstanding of and disrespect for cultural practices, and lack of proper education opportunities, healthcare facilities, or legal oversight due to institutionalized bigotry. Much of this discrimination is written into laws – and many of these laws still exist or were terminated only a generation or so ago. Below are three examples of discrimination laws from Africa, Australia and North America. It is by no means a comprehensive list. If you have an example of a law you would like to share, please leave it in a comment at the bottom of this post.

 1. It was legal to hunt San (Bushmen) in southern Africa until 1936. When Dutch settlers arrived at the Cape of Good Hope (South Africa) they eradicated most of the local San population within 150 years, shooting and killing thousands and forcing more into labor.  From the 1600s-1800s, commandos (mobile paramilitary units) were ordered to hunt San tribes, whom the Dutch settlers feared and greatly misunderstood. By 1873, the San of the Cape were hunted into extinction, with other groups of San in the area surviving under constant threat. When the British claimed the land at the end of the 18th century, they vowed to end the violence by encouraging the San to become more “civilized” – primarily, by adopting an agricultural lifestyle. When this failed to work (shockingly to the British, the San, the oldest people on earth, were not keen on giving up their semi-nomadic pastoralist or hunter-gatherer lifestyle), British policy became much harsher and more violent. The killing of San was accepted and encouraged – the last permit to hunt San was issued in Namibia by the South African government in 1936. Understandably, concrete information on this practice is difficult to find – while some sources argue that San hunting only occurred in Namibia from 1912-1915, other sources purport that the practice lingered until the 1970s. Furthermore, South Africa, Namibia, Angola, and Botswana all had shoot-to-kill policies that allowed officials to kill San that believed may be hunting wildlife.

2. Aboriginals were not considered citizens of Australia until 1967, and some were regulated under Flora and Fauna Law. The federal constitution, written in 1900, explicitly stated that Aboriginals would not be counted in any state or federal census. Queensland was the last state in Australia to grant state voting rights to Aboriginals in 1965; Aboriginals in the Northern Territory were considered “wards of the state” and were not allowed to vote in federal elections unless they were ex-servicemen up until 1962. Voting and citizenship rights for Aboriginals were written into the constitution with a 1967 referendum, which also removed discriminatory references to Aboriginals from the Constitution and gave Parliament the power to make laws pertaining to Indigenous Peoples (previous to that, state governments had total law-making power over Aborigines). The referendum set a voting record, with 90.77 percent of the entire population voting in favor of it. Interestingly, the highest percentage of “no” votes were recorded in territories with the highest Aboriginal populations, suggesting that anti-Indigenous racism was still rampant in many areas of Australia (since the passage of the Race Discrimination Act in 1975, 10,5000 complaints have been filed with the government, with more than 3,500 of those coming from Aboriginals and Torres Strait Islanders). However, though voting is mandatory for all Australian citizens, voting was not made compulsory for Aborigines until 1983.  Queensland has lagged behind in many Indigenous rights lawsQueensland Aborigines could be forced to live on reserves until 1971, and could not own their own property until 1975. In 1959, Aboriginals became eligible to receive pensions and maternity leave, but only if they were not “nomadic or primitive,” and often group payments were made to reserves or missions rather than individuals or communities. Though many of these discriminatory laws were changed in the 1960s and 1970s, others were being created – legislation created in the 1970s requires that the estate of an Aboriginal who dies without leaving a will should be automatically put in the hands of a public trustee, rather than granted to the next of kin as is the case with non-Aboriginals. The Law Reform Committee recommended that this law be changed in 2008, and the Department of Indigenous Affairs confirmed in 2012 that they are “considering it.” Also contentious is New South Wales’ Flora and Fauna Law under the National Parks and Wildlife Act. This law claims that the majority of Aboriginal artifacts are “property of the crown,” and claims jurisdiction over all Aboriginal heritage and culture. Aboriginals, understandably, object to their culture being regulated under an act meant to protect vegetation and wild animals. New South Wales is the only state in Australia not to have a stand-alone Aboriginal Heritage Act, and activists have been lobbying for one for the past thirty years.

3. The United States, Canada, and Australia forced Indigenous children into residential schools, which were often physically, emotionally, and sexually abusive, in order to “kill the Indian in them.” Australia began the practice in 1869, when the state of Victoria passed the Aborigines Protection Act, allowing the government to remove Indigenous children from their families to be placed in reformatories or industrial schools. In 1905, Western Australia passed the Aborigines Act, establishing a Chief Protector to serve as the legal guardian of all Aboriginal or “half-caste” children under the age of 16 (in New South Wales, the Director of Native Welfare was the legal guardian of all Aboriginal children, regardless of whether their parents were living or not, up until 1965). All other states in Australia quickly followed suits, enacting laws that gave a designated Chief Protector the authority to control nearly every aspect of Aboriginal life, including whom they could marry and where they could live and work. The removal of children remained legal and encouraged by the government for an entire century, until the last state repealed it in 1969. Furthermore, Australia officially promoted the assimilation of Aboriginals from 1937 through the 1960s – the 1961 Native Welfare Conference stated that “All Aborigines and part-Aborigines are expected to attain the same manner of living as other Australians and to live as members of a single Australian community enjoying the same rights and privileges, accepting the same responsibilities, observing the same customs and influenced by the same beliefs, hopes, and loyalties as other Australians.” Residential schools were considered a key component of assimilation, as they removed children from their communities and taught them to be “more white.”

The United States began sending American Indians to off-reservation schools in the 1879. Army Officer Richard Pratt, who founded the first of these schools in Carlisle, Pennsylvania, famously stated in an 1892 speech that “A great general has said that the only good Indian is a dead one. In a sense, I agree with the sentiment, but only in this: that all the Indian there is in the race should be dead. Kill the Indian in him, and save the man.” Tsianina Lomawaima, head of American Indian Studies at the University of Arizona, explains that “They very explicitly targeted Native nations that were the most openly hostile. There was a very conscious effort to recruit the children of leaders, and this was also explicit, essentially to hold those children hostage. The idea was that it would be much easier to keep those communities pacified with their children held in a school somewhere far away.” By 1909, there were 25 off-reservation boarding schools, 157 on-reservation boarding schools, and 307 day schools. 100 of these were run by the federal government, with others run by churches and missionaries. Children were not allowed to see their parents or to leave campus. They were subjected to physical labor, abuse, and were not allowed to speak their native language, use their original names, or practice cultural activities. The United States ended the practice of removing children to boarding schools in 1938 with the Indian Reorganization act, but some churches continued to remove children until the 1970s. A 1960 Congressional report found that many teachers at American Indian boarding and day schools still saw their primary role as “civilizing” students, not educating them. Additionally, pre-1990 loopholes in state and federal abuse laws mandating the reporting of allegations of sexual abuse at residential schools allowed sexual abuse to continue un-checked on school grounds. The most infamous case, perhaps, is that of John Boone. In 1987 the FBI found evidence that Boone had sexually abused as many as 142 boys at the Bureau of Indian Affairs-run Hopi day school that he taught at in Arizona. The incidences spanned from 1979 to the time of his arrest in 1987, though the principal of the school failed to investigate a single allegation.

Canada modeled their residential schools after those in the United States, with the first opening in 1880 and the last not closing until 1984, nearly four decades after the law was repealed in the United States. Because ex-students of these schools are younger, there is much more anecdotal documentation about as well as lingering effects from the horrible conditions at these schools. Canada was operating 80 residential schools by 1931, and an entire third of Aboriginal children in Canada between the mid-1800s and 1970 spent the majority of their childhoods at such schools. All residential schools in Canada were Christian-based, with the religion forced upon the students. It is estimated that at least 50,000 Native children died at these residential schools from starvation, disease, harsh conditions such as forced labor and cold, and abuse. At one school, 69 percent of students in one decade died from tuberculosis; at some other schools, it’s estimated that 100 percent of the students were sexually abused. In 1928, Alberta passed legislation allowing Aboriginal girls to be forcibly sterilized; in 1933 British Columbia passed similar legislation. Exact numbers on how many girls were sterilized under these laws is impossible to know, as many hospitals destroyed files after a federal investigation began in 1995. Recent evidence has also come to light that some residential schools performed nutritional experiments on Aboriginal children, including withholding certain vitamins and minerals to observe the effects.

The legacy of these laws are strong and very much alive today. We would like to collect other examples of these overtly racist as well as more subtle laws that discriminated against and subjugated Indigenous Peoples. Please leave your examples in the Comments below.