America’s Original Sin Continues: The Fight Against Indigenous Children
In order to keep us from building the power to be free and liberated, the strategy is simple: keep us poor, keep us ignorant, keep us divided and keep us sick.
This game plan probably sounds familiar to many of you, because it is the living legacy of white supremacy and oppression embedded in the social, economic, and political systems of the United States. The same strategy used on Indigenous peoples has been used on Black, Brown, Asian and Pacific Islander communities, immigrants, refugees and undocumented people, and other intersectional identities who, like us, remain targets.
There have been many forms of state-sanctioned violence against Aboriginal people. The list includes educational institutions that killed an as yet unknown number of our children, soldiers who targeted and slaughtered our ancestors in religious ceremonies, and, more recently, state agencies and non-profit organizations that practiced forced sterilization. These were all part of a policy of murder against Aboriginal people, part of a centuries-old, calculated and tested political strategy.
In the nation’s highest court, the Indian Child Welfare Act is set to be argued later this year at Brackeen vs. Haaland, in what many in the field of federal Indian law describe as the greatest threat to Indian country and its sovereignty in centuries.
When it was adopted in 1978, The ICWA was landmark legislation, establishing unprecedented protections to deal with the assimilationist policies that led state child welfare and private adoption agencies to systematically remove nearly one-third of all Native American and Alaska Native children from their homes . (Yes, almost a third; you read that right.) Eighty-five percent of these children were placed in non-Indian homes. The constitutionality of ICWA is now being challenged in a lawsuit filed by Texas, Indiana, Louisiana and various individual plaintiffs. This is the first time a state has sued the federal government over the constitutionality of ICWA.
If the ICWA is reversed, a “a multitude of laws that rest on a centuries-old precedent of tribal sovereignty could be in jeopardy”, as a recent Politico article put it. Those who support the attack on the ICWA would like us all to believe that the Supreme Court debate over Indian identity is about protecting Indigenous children. They would have us believe that they have the best interests of Indian children at heart. just like boarding schools were a tactic to tear down the foundation of the tribes, assimilate us, and destroy any obligation the federal government had to us, the push to overthrow the ICWA serves the same purpose – except this time the mission is much more insidious.
Scholars and journalists investigating the issues made it clear that it was part of a plan to build and reclaim conservative power across the United States. Ahe of our future are at stake, because at the heart of this cases are Gibson Dunn, the Goldwater Institute, and the Bradley Foundation ― the same set of political actors and funders who have proposed policies that attack our democracy, LGBTQ rights, and teaching Juneteenth, Black History and Critical Race Theory, and are among those who have championed the Keystone XL pipeline.
But, you might wonder, how could a child welfare case threaten to overthrow tribal sovereignty? And what’s behind it? In short, it is the same thing that threatens us all: a small group of people who hoard resources and power to ensure that they maintain their unearned privilege, that is, white supremacy.
“In the United States, there are two corporate law firms that represent the oil industry more than anyone else,” the investigative reporter said. Rebecca Nagle, Citizen of the Cherokee Nationsaid on the “This Land” podcast.
“One of these companies doesn’t just represent companies like Chevron,” Nagle said. “They work for all sectors of industry: pipelines, trade organizations, lobby groups, etc. And this firm is now representing the Brackeens in their big federal lawsuit.
According to Nagle, tribes have jurisdiction over about 2% of land in the United States, but that land contains minerals, coal, timber, natural gas and oil worth about $1.5 trillion. . In the lands over which the tribes have jurisdiction are about one-third of all of the country’s fossil fuel resources. A direct attack on Indian gambling and resources might be too obvious, but setting a precedent in the area of child protection could have a domino effect on all areas of Indian law, including gambling and natural resources .
ICWA relies on the legal authority of tribes to determine who is a citizen or descendant and who is not. It takes into account the historical harm done to tribes and tribal communities based on racist child protection policies.
The case of plaintiffs Chad and Jennifer Brackeen, who are non-Indigenous, argues that the ICWA ― which only allows Indigenous children to live with non-Indigenous adoptive parents if a tribal family is not available ― is a form of racial segregation. Their case ignores tribes entirely and argues that our youngest tribal citizens are “barely native.”
In reality, our citizenship in the tribal nations should be viewed the same way you might view citizenship in any other nation in the world. The definition of who qualifies as American Indian/Alaska Native, a definition that has been upheld by Congress and the Supreme Court, has been legally and inextricably tied to tribes. But here, the Brackeens and their team are trying to racialize it.
It’s like the polar opposite of the one-drop rule, a (somewhat) obsolete social and legal tenet of racial classification prevalent in 20th-century America. He claimed that if a person had a trace of black ancestry in their family tree – “a drop” of black blood in their veins – they could be considered black. In this case, a similar rule is used in the opposite direction, for the same ends: to diminish the power of a community of color while furthering the goals of white supremacy. Basically, they say our “one drop” doesn’t matter.
According to many elected tribal leaders, scholars, journalists and legal experts, the real goal of this case, and those who support it, is to advance conservative agendas across the United States. They want to test their political theories in an area that lacks visibility, when and where they think no one will look at them. And if they succeed in their attack here, they will move on to the next target. If they succeed in paving the way for natural resource extraction, fracking, oil, mining and deforestation, the impact on the tribes and our children will only be collateral damage.
Since 1492, there has been a debate about the identity of Indigenous peoples in what is now called the United States. It is a debate that spans the disciplines of law, sociology, anthropology, education, international politics, history and geography.
For tribal peoples, our identity also serves to determine the future of Indian country – and what the citizens of the tribes will look like in 10, 20 and 500 years. Identity is at the crossroads where the personal meets the collective, and where the strength, health and well-being of families connects to communities and nations. In Indian country, identity is intertwined with nationality and sovereignty as well as personality ― the sense of where one comes from and who one is.
Most people should know that when the United States was created, the federal government signed more than 300 treaties with tribal nations. Jribes ceded nearly 2 million acres and control of natural resources ― if, and only if, the United States honored its treaties. It’s the same constitutional process we use to sign treaties with other nations like Mexico and France. But treaties are not just between tribal nations and the government; they are between you and me. They are between all of us. We all have the responsibility to respect them. How do we do our job and organize ourselves to respect and enforce these agreements? If you don’t, chances are you’re trying hard to ignore and undermine them. On this issue, there is no middle ground.
I leave you with one last thought. You may not be an LGBTQ or transgender justice activist ― but I don’t care. Get involved for transgender rights. You may not think what happens with undocumented families will affect you. You are wrong. You may not have children or understand the struggle in critical race theory education. Get involved anyway. get involved with Something. Be an unlikely ally. Throw your money and power behind causes you believe in.
In the wake of Roe’s overthrow, my friend and colleague Sandy Chung, director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Oregon, said it best: “Don’t assume your community is free right now because you don’t haven’t been targeted yet. No one is free until everyone else is free, because they’re going after all of us.
If you would like to support the fight to protect ICWA, you can donate today to one of the four national Indigenous organizations that make up the Protect ICWA campaign: Indian National Child Welfare Associationthe National Congress of American Indiansthe American Indian Affairs Association and the Native American Rights Fund. The campaign aims to serve and support Indigenous children, youth and families by respecting the Indian Child Welfare Act. It strives to inform political, legal and communications strategies with a mission to defend and protect ICWA.
For an in-depth look at the Gibson Dunn law firm and its ties to other conservative groups, listen to the full season of “This Land” here..