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Supreme Court upholds Indigenous child welfare law

The Supreme Court of the United States
The Supreme Court of the United States

News brief

The U.S. Supreme Court upheld the Indian Child Welfare Act Thursday, to the surprise of many. Tribal leaders and advocates are calling the decision a win for tribal sovereignty.

The federal law prioritizes placing Indigenous children within their tribe when adopted or in the foster care system. It was challenged in court as a discriminatory race-based law.

Angel Charley is a citizen of Pueblo of Laguna with ties to the Pueblo of Zuni and Navajo Nation, and she heads of the Coalition to Stop Violence Against Native Women. She said bigger issues were at stake, too.

“This was never just about Indian children,” she said. “It was about the interests of oil and gas.”

Before the 1980s, state child welfare programs and adoption agencies removed up to a third of Native children from their families, and most of them were also removed from their tribes, according to the National Indian Child Welfare Association.

ICWA was created to stop the erosion of Native culture, and if it had been overturned, Charley thinks the impacts would have snowballed.

“If you disrupt connection to community, you disrupt connection to land, you undermine tribal sovereignty…thereby having access to expanding enterprise under extractive industries,” she said.

Today she’s relieved and full of joy as she reflected on those who advocated for Indigenous families before her — “What would your ancestors say to you? This is the moment for all of us to celebrate.”

While the federal law was being challenged, some western states, including New Mexico, Wyoming and Colorado, enacted their own versions to keep Indigenous families together.

Related Content
  • The Indian Child Welfare Act still stands, with some of its key provisions weakened by a sharply divided U.S. Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals this month.…
  • On this week’s Let’s Talk New Mexico, we’ll be taking a closer look at the Indian Child Welfare Act. If ICWA is deemed unconstitutional, how will this ruling impact tribal sovereignty and tribal-owned energy companies, gaming establishments and lands? How will this potential overturn of ICWA affect New Mexico Native children in foster care? We want to hear from you. What do you want to know about ICWA? Email us at LetsTalk@kunm.org or call in live, Thursday morning at 8, on 89.9 KUNM.