The Case of ICWA, Native Adoption & Tribal Sovereignty

By Brigitte Carreiro for WORLD Channel

Stories of separation and reunification contextualize the SCOTUS case of Haaland v. Brackeen, which challenges the constitutionality of ICWA.

On Wednesday, November 9, the Supreme Court of the United States heard arguments in the case of Haaland v. Brackeen; the plaintiffs – white foster parents and the state of Texas – claim that the Indian Child Welfare Act (ICWA) violates the Constitution by discriminating on the basis of race. The decision will directly challenge the precedent set by ICWA and threaten the sovereignty of tribal nations as political entities and not racial groups.

During the course of U.S. history, child welfare standards were primarily based on Euro-centric principles that differed from the rituals and values of life on tribal reservations. In 1978, at the time of the passing of ICWA, Congress found “between 25 to 35 percent of all Indian children nationwide were removed from their homes and 90 percent of those children were placed into non-Indian homes.”

Designed to value a preservation of culture and to keep Native children in Native homes, ICWA currently protects against the forced removal of Indigenous children and prioritizes placements within a child’s tribe in cases of adoption. Since the passing of the law, Indigenous ancestry is now disclosed in adoption records; today, pre-ICWA Native adoptees and their biological families have the opportunity to learn about one another even if the records were sealed at the time of adoption.

But the damage has been done. Government programs, like American Indian boarding schools, have resulted in cultural genocide and generational trauma that continues to impact Indigenous peoples and whole communities. And now, the future of ICWA and tribal sovereignty hang in the balance.

This month, during Native American Heritage Month, watch films from America ReFramed (and our partner Vision Maker Media) that tell of the long-standing effects of U.S. policy and non-Native adoption, and what healing and cultural reconciliation mean to these communities.

In Daughter of a Lost Bird, Kendra Potter, a Lummi adoptee who grew up in a loving, upper middle-class white family, embarks on a seven-year journey to rediscover what it means to be Native and to belong to a tribe. When Kendra reunites with her biological mother, also an adoptee and survivor of abuse, addiction, homelessness and sex trafficking, the two explore the complex process of finding oneself in the context of a history filled with both trauma and resiliency. Watch on Nov. 17 on America ReFramed, online and on the PBS app, or stream now on PBS Passport.

In Blood Memory, Sandy White Hawk, removed from her Sicangu Lakota relatives at just 18 months old, sets out to reclaim the identity she was taught to disown. Through organizing the first annual Welcome Home Ceremony for Adopted and Foster Relatives of the Rosebud Sioux Tribe, she explores the impact reunification can have on communal healing. Watch on Nov. 24 at 8/7c on America ReFramed, online and on the PBS app, or stream now on PBS Passport.

In Dawnland, the nation’s first-ever government-endorsed truth and reconciliation commission investigates the impact of Indigenous child removal on Maine’s Wabanaki people. Under the presumption that assimilating into white society would improve their lives and futures, many Wabanaki children were removed from reservations and placed in white foster or adoptive homes, many suffering physical and psychological abuse. Can reconciliation help heal the scars from childhoods lost? Read an interview with filmmaker Adam Mazo.

Correction 12/1/22: An earlier version of this article incorrectly identified Kendra Potter as a member of the Blackfeet/Salish tribe in the description for Daughter of a Lost Bird. Kendra’s tribal affiliation is with the Lummi tribe, while filmmaker Brooke Swaney is Blackfeet/Salish.

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