Congress passed the Indian Child Welfare Act (IWCA) in 1978to protect American Nativ e children from forced removal from their families, tribes, and culture and preserve tribal sovereignty.
It addressed the nationwide problem of state child welfare agencies taking Native children from their families and placing them in non-Native homes, in an attempt to force Native children to assimilate and adopt white cultural norms. Before ICWA, public and private agencies were removing 25 to 35 percent of Native American/Alaska Native children from their homes, and 85 percent of those children were placed in non-Native households.
Beginning in the early 1800s, the architects of the Federal Indian Boarding School Program designed the program to erase the Indigenous identities of Native people. The government snatched children as young as four years old from their families and sent them to militarized boarding school institutions designed to destroy their Native identities and culture, often hundreds of miles away from their tribal homelands. Any markers of their Indigeneity — language, clothing, traditional hairstyles, and even their names — were prohibited in these institutions. Indian boarding schools were places where Native youth were stripped of their culture: many children died at these schools from outright neglect, malnutrition, untreated illness, and as a result of physical violence carried out against them.
In 1958, the Bureau of Indian Affairs created the Indian Adoption Project. The project’s explicit goal was to assimilate Native children into white culture through adoption and the intentional destruction of Indigenous family units and tribal communities. During this era and continuing today, practices rooted in ethnocentric stereotypes operating under the guise of “child protection” resulted in the baseless separation of thousands of Native children from their families and homelands.
This November, the U.S. Supreme Court will hear oral arguments in Brackeen v. Haaland, a case that challenges the constitutionality of ICWA. If the Supreme Court rules ICWA unconstitutional, it could have far-reaching consequences for Native children, families and tribes while simultaneously putting the existence of tribes in jeopardy. Brackeen v. Haaland is the largest threat to Native children, families, and tribes before the Supreme Court in our lifetimes. If ICWA is overturned, states would once again be allowed to tear Native children from their families, tribes, and culture while simultaneously threatening tribes’ very existence. The legal arguments made by the plaintiffs challenging ICWA in Brackeen undermine key tenets of federal Indian law, and threaten many other laws upholding tribal sovereignty. The outcome of Brackeen v. Haaland could put centuries-long legal precedent upholding tribal sovereignty — including tribes’ right and ability to preserve their unique cultural identities, raise their own children and govern themselves — in jeopardy.