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The Student News Site of St. Joseph's University

The Hawk News

The Student News Site of St. Joseph's University

The Hawk News

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The Indian Child Welfare Act: Keeping Indigenous children within tribal communities

The first time I was surrounded by other Indigenous people was when I attended my first Powwow in elementary school. From the announcers to the performers to the small business owners selling food and art in tents, the Nanticoke Indian Powwow united Indigenous people near my hometown in southern Delaware. I saw people who looked like my father for the first time, while my mother, siblings and I blended into the crowd of white people immersing themselves in tribal culture for just one day. 

Despite the tribal practices and conversations about identity that my parents weaved into my childhood, I felt the most separated from my Indigeneity at the Powwow because I “pass” as white. Though my father does not pass as white, I wonder if he experienced a similar internal conflict between Indigeneity and tribal connection, that is, the difference between being Indigenous and feeling Indigenous. 

In 1978, the United States passed the Indian Child Welfare Act (ICWA) that grants tribal governments jurisdiction over children on reservations. The law was passed in response to Indigenous children being removed from reservations by public and private agencies and placed into non-Native families. Indigenous children adopted by Indigenous families, with the priority of keeping them with family members of members of the same tribe, become known as “ICWA kids.” 

My father is not an ICWA kid. He is the kid the law was trying to protect. In 1960, he was born on the Sisseton Wahpeton reservation in South Dakota and adopted by a white couple who brought him to New Castle County, Delaware. 

When asked about his ethnicity, my father often jokes that he’s “half American Indian, half Danish and half Italian” because of how many Italian families populated the area he grew up in. Additionally, many of his father figures throughout his life were Black men. While this exposure to diverse identities shaped his perspective of the world in a positive way, the one identity he never seemed to be surrounded by was his own. 

ICWA stood to fight this prolonged assimilation of Indigenous children by preserving tribal communities, but the current Supreme Court case Haaland v. Brackeen, does more than question ICWA as an act of legal jurisdiction. If ICWA were to be repealed, the United States government would have jurisdiction over children on reservations, potentially allowing families of any racial background equal access to the adoption of Indigenous children. Acceptance of applications to adopt are not void of racial discrimination; however, and this promotes the tone of white saviorism in the adoption of Indigenous children. 

Dismantling IWCA also uplifts imperialist ideals of what makes a home adequate for adoption. One of the arguments in this case is that Indigenous families are not always fit to foster children. Alfred Urbina, the Pascua Yaqui attorney general, told a Washington Post reporter earlier this month that “Just because there’s a dirt floor doesn’t mean that’s a neglectful situation,” and this projection of standards further pushes the stereotype of savagery among tribal communities. 

Despite arguments made by the plaintiffs of the case, ICWA does not prohibit the adoption of Indigenous children by families of other racial backgrounds. Instead, it prioritizes children on reservations to stay on reservations — to show that tribal communities are places where a child can thrive. That’s how it should be.

If my father had been an ICWA kid, I’m sure my life and sense of Indigeneity would have been different; my father’s would have been as well. But whether this would have been for better or worse is an unanswerable “what if.” ICWA exists so that future generations of Indigenous children do not find themselves alone in their identity wondering “Where is my tribe?” 

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