Indian Child Welfare Act attacks are a threat to tribes

The law is essential to strengthening future Native American generations.

 

Indian Country News is a weekly note from High Country News, as we continue to broaden our coverage of tribal affairs across the West.

This week, High Country News published a story by reporter Allison Herrera detailing a conservative think tank’s efforts to dismantle the Indian Child Welfare Act, an adoption law that turns 40 this year. The 1978 act was created to prevent the separation of Native children from their families and communities through adoptions, to “protect the best interests of Indian children and to promote the stability and security of Indian tribes and families.”

However, the Goldwater Institute, a right-wing advocacy group with ties to the Koch brothers, argues the law, which only allows Native children to live with non-Native foster parents if a tribal family is not available, is a form of racial segregation. That position runs counter to the common understanding of the law, as espoused by the Native American Journalists Association (of which I am a board member).

Under the law, preference is given to Native families within the same tribe as the child, and ICWA has been a way for tribal governments to keep their youth from disappearing, by keeping them with families that can provide them access to their culture and tribal citizenship. For many years now, it has also been the target of legal challenges.

“The 1978 act’s advocates say it is not about race but about the rights of sovereign tribes, as though that distinction is meaningful,” conservative columnist George Will wrote in 2015 in the Washington Post. “The act empowers tribes to abort adoption proceedings, or even take children from foster homes, solely because the children have even a minuscule quantum of American Indian blood. Although, remember, this act is supposedly not about race.”

A family listens to testimony during the Indian Child Welfare Act summit in Rapid City, South Dakota, in 2013.
Benjamin Brayfield/Rapid City Journal/AP Photo

Sadly, what commentators like Will don’t seem to understand is that sovereignty is meaningful — albeit complicated. Genetic markers do not go hand-in-hand with culture or tribal citizenship, and linking them not only insults the authority of tribal governments, it is racially offensive. While many tribes use blood quantum, another legacy of colonialism, to determine membership (as is their sovereign right to do so), others use ancestral descent to make determinations of citizenship. Put plainly, ICWA applies to the citizens of sovereign nations as those nations define them.

ICWA was established as a way to stop the widespread assimilation and degradation of our Native youth. Make no mistake, Native adoption programs of the past were deliberate attempts to diminish our bloodlines and our heritage by removing our children from their cultures. Placing Native children in foster homes outside of their tribe was the natural progression of assimilation efforts following the closure of Indian boarding schools. Groups like the Goldwater Institute that push for the elimination of ICWA are, intentionally or not, contributing to the continued attack on Native existence.

Such groups have attempted to capitalize on misinformation and stereotypes as a way to undermine ICWA. But ignoring the rights of tribes as both governments and as peoples to protect their culture not only ignores sovereignty, an all-too-common practice these days, it also overlooks, quite callously, generations of historical trauma.

“Removal? Theft? It’s hard to put a name on it, but it wasn’t adoption,” Melissa Olson says in the introduction to her radio documentary looking back at her family’s experience with Native adoption, Stolen Childhoods.

Put another way: “It was attempted genocide,” the writer Trace A. DeMeyer, who was adopted prior to ICWA, told me recently. “We’re supposed to blend in with American society, and we’re not supposed to find our ways back because our (adoption) records are sealed. You’re just a missing person.” DeMeyer wrote about her adoption experience in 2013 for Indian Country Today and runs the blog Split Feathers for Native adoptees.

DeMeyer was 38 when she finally found her father, who was Shawnee and Cherokee, south of Chicago, and had a chance to understand her heritage. He died just a year later. DeMeyer said she and others like her remained separated from their culture for years, while returning to it can make one feel like a perpetual outsider.

“We need to return,” she said. “We need to get home. We need to be reunited. We need to find a way back into our culture, which was taken from us, and we didn’t ask for that.”

DeMeyer said many of her generation, adopted before ICWA was law, are thankful for their adoptive parents, “but in the end, we lost more than they could have ever given us.”

Right now, ICWA is the law, but legal challenges against it continue.

The threat to ICWA is real. And the danger of losing its protections puts more at stake for tribes. As Nikki Baker-Limore, executive director of Indian Child Welfare for the Cherokee Nation, told me last year, “We lose our children, we lose our tribe.” At the time, she was referring to an opioid epidemic that has put a strain on the Nation’s foster care system, but the type of threat is irrelevant. The lesson is the same: We need to safeguard our future. Baker-Limore is herself a foster parent, one of countless examples I have seen over my lifetime of how Native peoples help raise each other up. We come from some of the most resilient communities this land has ever seen. Protecting and passing on that legacy is one of the most meaningful distinctions I know.

Wado.

Graham Lee Brewer is a contributing editor at High Country News and a member of the Cherokee Nation.

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