This article is co-published with The footprinta national non-profit media outlet covering child protection and youth justice.
WASHINGTON, DC—An Indigenous dancer from Canada, adopted by a white family with her eight siblings. The grandson of several generations of “stolen” American Indians from Minnesota. A Cherokee lawyer from Oklahoma, with her small child in tow.
They joined hundreds of people from across Indian country who rallied outside the US Supreme Court on Wednesday morning, vowing to fight for the Indian Child Welfare Act and its 44-year protection of family ties between members. tribal.
The law known as ICWA is challenged in a Supreme Court case, Brackeen v. Haaland. The high court heard oral arguments in the case on Wednesday.
“The only reason I’m alive today is because ICWA was applied to me,” said law student Autumn Adams, a member of the Yakama Nation Confederate Tribes and Bands who grew up in host family. “I carry it with me every day because this cultural connection I have through ICWA is why I stand before you and why I’m as successful as I am.”
Three white couples seeking to adopt Indigenous children are behind the Supreme Court case. Each of the foster families, including Danielle and Jason Clifford of Minneapolis, Minnesota, say the 1978 Indian Child Welfare Act discriminated against because of their race.
The Cliffords fostered Robyn Bradshaw’s granddaughter for almost two years and tried unsuccessfully to adopt her. Bradshaw, a member of the White Earth Band of the Chippewa tribe in Minnesota, refused to give up on his granddaughter, named PS in court documents.
“The Cliffords can provide love, attachment, an active two-family home and extended family, as well as vast financial resources,” a Hennepin County district judge wrote in the Hennepin adoption case. Clifford. But, the judge ruled, her grandmother can nurture her “connection to her tribe, her Ojibwe culture, her sister and both sides of her family in ways that the Cliffords cannot.”
After four years in foster care and six years of court hearings, PS is back home with her White Earth community and her grandmother. The 11-year-old boy is a fan of cycling and has learned to swim. In addition to sharing movie nights, cartoons, and coloring, Bradshaw searched for badges so his granddaughter could attend powwows. She also introduces PS to the Ojibwe language.
It is expected to take months for a decision to be rendered in the Brackeen case. But many at Wednesday’s protest said they would continue to speak out to protect ICWA.
Wednesday morning began with prayer and singing to the rhythm of animal skin drums. The lyrics encouraged judges and lawyers to “open their hearts and minds” to make the right decisions and to “let the creator join them.”
The issues were clear.
“We’re talking about the future of our Native children,” said Misty Flowers, member of the Santee Sioux Nation of Nebraska and executive director of the Nebraska Indian Child Welfare Coalition. “It becomes very emotional, as we are still dealing with the effects of historic trauma.”
In cases involving children who are tribal members or eligible for tribal registration, ICWA requires child welfare agencies to make “active” rather than “reasonable” efforts to keep children with their parents or guardians. tribes. It requires qualified experts to testify in abuse and neglect cases, giving tribes the power to decide outcomes, and considers Native homes “preferred placements” for foster children.
Those protections — in a country where Native American children are far more likely than other children to be separated from their families — are desperately needed, those gathered at the Washington, DC rally said Wednesday.
Flowers noted that despite the ICWA’s protections, “we keep disappearing, because there’s so much damage that’s been done.”
Wednesday’s crowd was vast, spanning geographies and generations – seniors and toddlers and all ages in between.
Among the hundreds in attendance was Washington State Tribal Relations Director Teleena Ives. She attended with that state’s top child welfare official, Ross Hunter. Others came from Maryland, Nevada and Nebraska. About 100 Cheyenne and Arapaho tribesmen arrived by bus from Oklahoma.
An elder in a pendleton jacket waved an American flag with the image of a Native American superimposed over stars and stripes. He floated past the podium as speaker after speaker called for the ICWA to continue.
“I don’t want them to touch our sovereignty and our children,” said Jay Winter Nightwolf, a 75-year-old radio show host from Washington, DC. “Because every time they take something from us, it’s just another way to get rid of us.”
The demonstrators stamped their feet to the rhythm of the drums and jumped in place. They held up signs that read: “Our sovereignty is more legitimate than their court”, “Our children, our culture”, “Stop the colonizers, protect the ICWA” and “Stop robbing indigenous children”.
The rally took place as oral arguments were being heard in Brackeen v. Haaland, challenging the constitutionality of India’s Child Welfare Act. In addition to the three white families seeking to adopt Native children, plaintiffs in the case also include Texas and several other states. They claim that Congress lacked the authority to pass ICWA, which they say violates equal protection guarantees and requires states to illegally pass federal law.
ICWA advocates include 497 tribes, 24 States and Washington, D.C.. They say the law – which celebrated its 44th anniversary on Tuesday – is key to ensuring the protection of Native American children and tribes, who for centuries have been subjected to forced assimilation and family separation through families of fostering, adoptions and Indian boarding schools.
Those who oppose the Brackeen case dispute its argument that the ICWA is a “race-based” law that discriminates against white people seeking to adopt. Instead, they say, it’s based on the unique political relationships between Indian tribes and the US government.
No opponents of the ICWA appeared to be among the protesters outside the Supreme Court.
“My father was robbed”
The rally was organized by the Protect ICWA Campaign, a group of four national Indigenous organizations: the Native American Rights Fund, the National Congress of American Indians, the National Indian Child Welfare Association and the Association on American Indian Affairs.
Angela Gladue, 37, is from Alberta, Canada. She wore a beaded chest plate and a bright yellow and orange shawl, her hair sporting a feather and tightly braided with decorative fabric.
Gladue said she grew up in foster care in a white family home, as did her siblings, who were also adopted by white families. She came to the rally to empower through indigenous dance, but she lamented even having to attend such an event.
“There is no ICWA in Canada,” she says. “So if the ICWA is overthrown in the United States, I fear that we will lose hope for my communities back home.”
Gladue described watching her mother struggle to retrieve her foster children as, one after another, they were adopted. She noted her siblings’ struggles to stay in touch with their Cree culture.
Now, she says, “they are adults and can finally begin to learn about their culture.” But, she noted, an ICWA-like law in Canada could have made all the difference in their lives.
Protester Angela Smith, a 44-year-old Cherokee Nation member and lawyer, also grew up in foster care. She then worked on another landmark case challenging the rights of Indigenous peoples to their children, known as Adoptive Couple v. Baby Girl, or the Baby Veronica Affair.
“I want to make it clear that this is also about the legal interests of our children,” Smith said. “ICWA is constantly challenged, what I want to see happen is protection at ground level and that is why I am here today.”
Protester Francis Keahna Uran, 25, of Hayward, Wisconsin, said his father was uprooted from his native community. Her father’s multiple siblings were also removed from their community and they still find each other.
“My dad was robbed in the 1970s and all of his siblings were robbed,” Uran said. But later, he added, a social worker “went against protocol” and placed Uran’s father with a new adoptive father from his White Earth Ojibwe tribe.
“He was one of the lucky ones,” Uran said.
Even if the Brackeen case nullifies some or all of the ICWA protections, as in Roe v. Wade, some states will still provide the protections outlined in law because they have codified similar safeguards into state law. Roe v. Wade constitutionally protected women seeking abortions, but was overturned by the U.S. Supreme Court in June, leaving individual states to determine abortion access.
eleven states having codified ICWA protections under state laws including California, Iowa, Michigan, Minnesota, Nebraska, Oklahoma, Oregon and Wisconsin. The list goes on.
“The ICWA has been before the Supreme Court before, but this is the first time its constitutionality has been challenged in the High Court. The case is currently before a court describe as the most conservative for 90 years. A judge, Amy Coney Barrett, is the white mother of two black children adopted from Haiti.
Standing under the waving Native American flag on Wednesday, Winter Nightwolf said that if the case is not in favor of ICWA, “We will continue to fight, because no one is trying to take your children.”