I am outraged by the prominent media outlets’ inaccurate and inflammatory coverage of the Supreme Court case Adoptive Couple v. Baby Girl. As a lifelong civil rights activist, I remember the struggle to pass the Indian Child Welfare Act (ICWA) in 1978 and the reasons it is still so badly needed to protect our families and Native American cultures.
Congress passed ICWA in response to the alarmingly high number of children being removed from their homes. According to the First Nations Orphan Association, between 1941 and 1978, 68 percent of all Indian children were removed from their homes and placed in orphanages or white foster homes or adopted into non-Indian families. That’s more than half of our kids being officially taken from their Native communities for several generations.
Studies have shown that Native American children placed in non-Native homes experience high rates of depression and suicide, as well as problems with development and identity formation. Removing Native children from their families and communities is severely traumatic and interrupts the transmission of culture from generation to generation.
The reasons ICWA was passed 35 years ago are just as strong and relevant today. Since its passage, ICWA has afforded protections for Indian children to stay in Indian families and tribal communities. Unfortunately, current lack of compliance by state agencies is a concern to every Indian tribe and Native community in the country.
We need to bolster support and resources for ICWA – not dismantle the law. As National Public Radio recently reported, Indian children continue to be removed from their families and communities at a rate that outpaces other children of color.
Yet throughout the duration of the Adoptive Couple v. Baby Girl case, media coverage has not included the original intent or purpose of the law and has been largely inaccurate and negative.
My heart goes out to the families on both sides of this case. The Supreme Court’s decision affects them directly. This decision could also affect every Native American by altering our very fragile right to be self-determining.
Every tribal government and American Indian should take heed of this decision because it has the potential both to weaken our right to determine the fate of our own children and to erode the unique status tribes hold within the U.S. federal system of governments — our inherent right to political and cultural autonomy.
I have contributed my life’s work to advance human rights, especially the rights of Indigenous peoples, due to a strong sense of my cultural identity imparted to me by my many Comanche relatives and the grandparents who raised me, Wakeah and Tabbytite. I have used the Comanche values they instilled in me to help create positive change.
The United States needs diverse perspectives to ensure that cultural values are an integral part of the political and social fabric of our country. We all lose if we continue to allow Native American children to be separated from their culture and value systems.
I am as concerned about this baby, Veronica, as I am about the thousands of other Indian children in the system. The Supreme Court needs to consider the broader implications of ICWA and rule to protect our rightful place as autonomous and self-determining peoples.
LaDonna Harris is an enrolled citizen of the Comanche Nation and president of Americans for Indian Opportunity. She has worked in the civil rights, feminist, environmental and world peace movements. Today, she heads an international Indigenous values-based leadership development initiative – the Ambassadors Program, headquartered in Albuquerque, N.M.