“One of the things that tribes need to continue to exist is their children,” says Shannon Smith, executive director of the Indian Child Welfare Act Law Center, which provides legal services for Native families. “Things just don’t exist if you don’t have kids.”
Some legal scholars argue that the case, which will be heard before the court on Wednesday, threatens to not only strike down ICWA, but also to question the fundamental rights of tribes that go well beyond child welfare—including rights around water, land, gaming, policing, and Native sovereignty itself.
“All children would benefit from such a commitment”
For 150 years, the federal government funded more than 400 boarding schools, often run by churches, that stripped Native children of their language, religion, and culture. As the boarding school movement died down in the mid-1900s, government-sponsored programs, including the Indian Adoption Project, emerged to place Native children with non-Native adoptive families. A 1966 Bureau of Indian Affairs press release read, “One little, two little, three little Indians—and 206 more—are brightening the homes and lives of 172 American families, mostly non-Indians, who have taken the Indian waifs as their own.”
By the time ICWA passed in 1978, between 25 and 35 percent of all Native children had been taken from their families and put in foster homes, adoptive homes, or institutions, according to surveys by the Association on American Indian Affairs.