The Indian Child Welfare Act Remains Under Attack

Today comes news that South Dakota is going to appeal a federal court decision that found the state guilty of violating the rights of Native Americans under the terms of the 1978 Indian Child Welfare Act.  The problems in South Dakota have been well documented.  NPR did an in-depth investigation, and the story has been covered widely in the Native American press.  It is devastating to learn about.

What has been missing has been historical context.  If you or your students want to learn more about the problems the Indian Child Welfare Act was intended to resolve, you need look no further than Margaret Jacobs’ “Remembering the ‘Forgotten Child’: The American Indian Child Welfare Crisis of the 1960s and 1970s,” which appeared in the American Indian Quarterly, 37 (Winter/Spring 2013, 136-159.

In Jacobs’ view, the termination was not merely an effort to get the United States out of the “Indian Business” through HCR 108 and PL280, the various termination statutes, and the establishment of the Indian Claims Commission, but as well an assault on Native American families and children.

BIA officials established in 1958 the Indian Adoption Project, a program, the Bureau argued, to shield Native American children from the poverty in Indian country brought about by too many single mothers having too many children.

Even though the evidence that unwed motherhood had reached epidemic proportions in Indian Country was largely unsubstantiated, and that the BIA ignored entirely the importance of extended families in child-rearing, and that policies aimed at attacking poverty and economic inequality might have been better suited for remedying the problems native peoples faced, the Bureau of Indian Affairs and the Indian Adoption Project looked to dismantle these families by pressuring mothers to give up their children for adoption. The benefits for the Bureau were substantial. It cost $750 per year, Jacobs shows, to support a native child at Minnesota’s Pipestone Boarding School, but only $470 to support that child in the state’s foster care system. Both the Bureau and the states could save even more money if these children were adopted. Thus, according to Jacobs, “the BIA and state agencies looked to the ultimate ‘private’ sector—in this case, white families—to take over the expense of raising Indian children.” Viewing Indian families as drunken and degraded, state officials deceived and coerced Indian mothers, took their children from them against their will, and then denied them due process when they tried to fight back. The BIA Adoption Program was perhaps the most brutal example of the termination policy in action.

The Indian Child Welfare Act was designed to halt the removal of Indian children from Indian families. The problem was severe.  Only a fool would disagree. Dakota Sioux at the Spirit Lake reservation, for example, asked the Association of American Indian Affairs to conduct an investigation. The AAIA reported that of the 1100 Dakotas under the age of 21 who lived at Spirit Lake in 1968, 275 had been removed from their families at least once. In states with large Native American populations, the AAIA found that between 25 and 35% of children had been removed from their homes.

Native peoples organized to halt this highly destructive practice, and the battle for the passage of the Indian Child Welfare Act, according to Jacobs, “represented one of the most fierce and successful battles for Indian self-determination of the 1970s.” The legislation committed the United States “to protect the best interests of Indian children and to promote the stability and security of Indian tribes and families by the establishment of minimum standards for the removal of Indian children from their families and the placement of such children in foster or adoptive homes which will reflect the unique values of Indian culture.”

There is much at stake in South Dakota.  The state has to do much with a small budget, but it cannot violate federal law.  The South Dakota case may reach the Supreme Court, and in an environment where conservatives are eager to shift the balance of power in many areas back to the states, this crucial case bears close watching.

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