On Nov. 9, the Supreme Court heard arguments in a case that may have disastrous impacts on Native American children, families and tribes. The case — Haaland v. Brackeen — threatens to overturn the Indian Child Welfare Act (ICWA). While this case is about ICWA, it is actually a smokescreen for the overall destruction of tribal sovereignty.
Those seeking to overturn ICWA adopt legal arguments that equate the unique political status of Federally Recognized Indian tribes with race. Conflating race with the political history of sovereign nations has the potential to (unlawfully) overturn the specific provisions in our Constitution and the treaties that recognize the sovereignty of tribes.
It is wild that in the midst of a renewed societal consciousness of the atrocities of boarding schools for Indigenous children the Supreme Court would consider eliminating a law that was instrumental in disrupting the unwarranted removal of Native children from their homes and families and into institutions of assimilation.
In May 2022, the Department of the Interior published a boarding school report. The report documented that, between 1819 and 1969, the federal Indian boarding school system consisted of 408 federal schools with 431 sites across the U.S. There were also more than 1,000 Indian day schools, sanitariums, asylums, orphanages and stand-alone dormitories involved in the removal of Native children.
Boarding schools sought to destroy Indigenous culture by changing children’s names, cutting their hair and punishing the use of their language or cultural or religious practices. Children were forced to perform manual labor. Many schools had burial grounds.
Let that sink in. The U.S. government kidnapped children and placed them in institutions that were so terrible they had formal burial grounds.
In the 1970s, Congress investigated and attempted to address Indian removal policies. Congress documented how state and private child welfare agencies were able to access the courts and systematically remove Native children from their families without evidence of harm and without due process of law. Congress passed ICWA to prevent these violations.
ICWA does not grant special rights. ICWA recognizes that, without protection, Native children will be taken away by white people without evidence of harm or due process. ICWA is a tiny shield against centuries-long efforts of genocide. ICWA’s elimination will only benefit those seeking to eliminate tribal sovereignty and Native American identity.
We should not be eliminating barriers to genocide. We should strive for a full understanding of what our government did and supported in the removal and deaths of children. We must locate and return children buried in boarding school graves. We must explore ways to remediate the harms our government perpetuated.
Read more of the Nov. 16-22, 2022 issue.