The true stakes of the Indian Child Welfare Act

Allie Maldonado’s family was torn apart by removal. It was reunited by community — and ICWA.


This week, the U.S. Supreme Court will hear oral arguments for Haaland v. Brackeen, a case in which the justices will decide the future of the Indian Child Welfare Act. Passed by Congress in 1978, the Indian Child Welfare Act, or ICWA, was a legislative solution to a problem that has existed since the colonization of the Americas began: the theft of Indigenous children. The subsequent system the law put into place allowed tribal nations to intervene in foster and adoptive cases involving their citizens in the name of providing these children with the chance to grow up within their cultures and communities.

Chief Judge Allie Maldonado.
Courtesy of the Little Traverse Bay Bands of Odawa Indians Communications Department

If ICWA is overturned, the human cost, in terms of the number of Native children and families who could face separation, could reach every corner of Indian County. In a conversation with High Country News recorded in August, Allie Maldonado — a citizen of Little Traverse Bay Bands of Odawa Indians where she currently works in the nation’s court system as chief judge — shared her family’s story, one defined by the stark differences between living in a pre- and post-ICWA world. Boarding schools and a predatory adoptive system pulled her family apart and nearly separated her from her tribe. But with persistence, the support of her uncle, and the protections ICWA currently offers, she found her way back. 

What follows is her account, as told to HCN. It has been edited for length and clarity.

Prior to the Indian Child Welfare Act, there was an official government policy of removing Indian children from their families, away from their communities, in an effort to assimilate them into society and indoctrinate them into Christianity. And, unfortunately, my family was part of that movement. My grandmother and all of my great-uncles attended boarding schools. They were taken out of their homes and placed first in the boarding school in Harbor Springs, Michigan — All the Holy Childhood Boarding School. Holy Childhood has the distinction of being the last boarding school in the United States to close (in 1983). My great-uncle Leo attended that boarding school, and he lived to tell me about that.

My grandmother, she just wasn’t having it. She ran away three different times with my uncle. And the third time, they punished all the (Little Traverse) kids by pulling them out of that boarding school and taking them all the way down to the Mount Pleasant boarding school, because they knew they couldn’t walk (150 miles) to Good Hart from Mount Pleasant. None of them saw their family for nine years after that. In summertime, Uncle Leo was loaned out to local farms, under the auspice of job training, to shovel hay and take care of the animals and whatnot. Women were taught domestic skills: cooking, cleaning, sewing. Uncle Leo talked about being taught blacksmithing and other kinds of labor skills — that was their expected pursuits. When Uncle Leo finally got old enough to leave, he tried coming home. But he didn’t speak the language and he’d forgotten our songs. He didn’t know our stories. He didn’t fit in anymore. And a lot of people, when that happens, turn to alcohol or drugs or suicide. But he joined the military.

A 1947 postcard showing Holy Childhood Boarding School and Church.
Courtesy of the Harbor Springs Area Historical Society

My grandmother would die young, and my mother would be removed — I’m actually the first generation in my family to not be removed since the inception of the boarding-school era. My mother was taken out of her community, cut off from her family, and they cut her hair. My mother’s a dark woman. She tells the story about how they put Clorox on her skin to try and lighten her. She was stripped of her language and culture. And she was taught to be ashamed of being Native American. She was told to lie and say she was Armenian. And I think the worst thing they did to her was they cut her off from her family and friends and relatives — my Uncle Leo told me that he didn’t know what had happened to her. He had gotten married and had a son. He and his wife were in the Detroit area and they had always wanted a daughter. They would have jumped at the chance to adopt my mother. Instead, she was sent to be a domestic worker for a Mennonite minister and his wife until she was 16. And then she was forced into a marriage there. 

My grandmother, she just wasn’t having it. She ran away three different times with my uncle.

REALLY, THAT REMOVAL destroyed the fabric of my family. It took us out of the community, off the reservation. My mother was told that nobody wanted her, that she would never be welcome. Her letters were not sent. She wasn’t given the letters that were sent to her. To this day, she has never set foot on the reservation. She describes herself as an apple: red on the outside, white on the inside. She’s so fearful that she would be rejected if she came back. What that meant for me as a child growing up was that I had half a human being as a mother — someone who wasn’t properly parented.

And where do you learn your parenting skills from? It’s from whoever raised you.

As the years went by, and ICWA got passed, I went forward. I got an education. I went to law school. And in my law school applications, I wrote that part of the reason I wanted to go to law school was because I wanted to stop what happened to my family from happening to anybody else.

When I started looking at going to college, my mother thought there might be scholarships available if I was enrolled in the tribe. So, she made an attempt to enroll, and it didn’t go very well. And she just gave up.

But I was not so quick. Paperwork was missing. This was before the internet, mind you. In order to enroll with the Little Traverse Bay Band or any tribe, you have to prove your family tree. And in building my family tree, I came to realize I didn’t know anything about my family. I didn’t know where I came from. And I didn’t understand why my mother was who she was. And building this family tree and filling in these gaps, it just gave me more questions. And I started to understand; I started to look into it.

Chief Judge Allie Maldonado.
Courtesy of the Little Traverse Bay Bands of Odawa Indians Communications Department

ONE OF MY STRENGTHS and attributes is that I remember the stories I’m told, even 10 years later. I may not always remember names. I may not always remember dates. But I remember stories, especially if they made me feel something. And when I finally got the paperwork together and created this family tree, and was looking at what was going on, I was able to have an understanding of what I lost. There were literally hundreds of relatives up here (around Good Hart) that could have taken (in) my mother. I could have grown up here.

On my father’s side – my dad's Jewish – everyone was lost, except for a handful of people, because of one genocide. I thought that we were it on my mother’s side, except for a couple of relatives. And I saw this whole family tree of all these people that could have been, that were, my family, but that I didn’t have the benefit of knowing. It was in my 20s that I just really understood: This is what broke our family.

I got my paperwork together, and I enrolled in the tribe. And then I applied to law school, and I came up here (to the Little Traverse Bay community) for the first time. I’ll never forget the first time. I came up for powwow. I immediately started meeting people who were like, “Who are you? What’s your name?” And I had done my family tree, so I was able to tell them who my relatives were. And they started telling me stories about my family. I mean, they started telling me all about who I am.

I remember stories, especially if they made me feel something.

And so then, after I graduated law school, I came back, and I started working for the tribe. My great-uncle Leo drove me all around Michigan, and took me to churches and cemeteries and told story after story about who I am and who they were and how we came to be here. And I was already all in at that point. But that just really showed me everything I lost — and then gave it back in a way. I was really grateful for every minute of the year that I had with my uncle.

That was his last year on earth, and he spent it with me, passing down those stories. We started the year by walking across the Mackinac Bridge together, just beginning to get to know one another. And then, a year later, we had spent this amazing year together, which completely changed my life and completely changed me, and as we’re walking across the bridge again, he turned and looked at me and said, “I think this is the last time I’m going to walk across this bridge.” And I looked at him and I said, “What are you talking about? You’re in great health. You just drove from Florida to Alaska last year.” I didn’t understand that he was trying to tell me something. But he knew, and three months later, he walked on.

At that moment, I was very, very focused on what I could do to keep other people from having to go through this: How can I be part of a solution?      

At the same time all this is going on, I’m very happily married, and I’m trying to start a family. And nothing’s going right for us. We spent several years trying to start a family with no luck. We spent tens of thousands of dollars on IVF treatments that were nothing but heartbreak. And after two years, we decided that it wasn’t meant to be and that we would adopt.

Chief Judge Allie Maldonado in the tribal courtroom.
Courtesy of the Little Traverse Bay Bands of Odawa Indians Communications Department

Because of the Indian Child Welfare Act, we became a licensed foster home. And because of the Indian Child Welfare Act, we were first in line to adopt Riley, a wonderful, healthy Little River child — the Little River Band of Ottawa Indians. Riley’s family was Turtle Clan and, in our communities, that makes us relatives. None of his biological family members were eligible as a placement. And so, (the state of) Nevada decided to follow the Indian Child Welfare Act. They allowed Little River to intervene, as they should, and the case was transferred to the Little River tribal court. And Riley was placed with us. Because of that, he’s been able to grow up near his community. He’s spent his whole life within the territorial boundaries of an Indian reservation. He regularly goes to tribal events. He’s an avid fisherman and exercises his treaty right to spearfish, which is a right of Native people here. He is a snow snake champion, which is a traditional Odawa game. And he understands our community and our community values.

And in this community, there are fewer than 5,000 citizens left, where there once were hundreds of thousands. And out of those 5,000 citizens, we have fewer than 400 under the age of 18. So that means every one of those children is not only just a potential voter and a future citizen, but potentially a future leader of our community. And they are the only ones who will keep our language and our culture alive. So as important as his community is to him, he’s just as important to his community. Pre-ICWA practices destroyed my family. But ICWA gave me a family.

And by the way, four months [after adopting Riley], I thought I had the flu and it was my daughter.

Nick Martin is an associate editor for HCN’s Indigenous Affairs desk and a member of the Sappony Tribe of North Carolina. We welcome reader letters. Email him at [email protected] or submit a letter to the editor. See our letters to the editor policy.

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