Connection—our human need to be with one another, with community, with love. We say “keep in touch” when we are at risk of losing connection with someone. Losing a connection can become grief. For indigenous people and other peoples who have endured genocide or forced loss of connections with their peoples, languages, lands, and cultures, the need to reconnect with all these lost aspects of ourselves can be incredibly difficult, painful, and life-changing.
For most indigenous peoples, we know that every child is born to a family, a mother, a father, to aunts and uncles, to grandparents and grandparents’ grandparents, a clan, a people, the land. Their tiny vulnerable bodies fed and nurtured and loved by their whole family. Named in their cultural traditions, spoken to in their languages, loved with indigenous knowledge and practices.
Yet, in this country, for shameful motives, indigenous children as young as three were taken away by the government for generations. Sometimes by force, often by threat. Known now as the boarding school era, tribal children were taken away from communities and family so that the government could “Kill the Indian, and Save the Man.”
Talking about genocide is difficult and uncomfortable. History has been clearly documented that the idea to make tribal people more white, rather than literally wipe them out, was tactically and explicitly decided by the government as not only cheaper but likely more acceptable in the world’s eyes. The more blatant and obvious tactics of child taking later became less plain and more nuanced, and arguably still applied in the spirit or rhetoric of benevolence. The boarding school era was followed by the adoption and assimilation eras. Tribal communities and families continue to make efforts to reconnect and heal where it is possible. In so many cases, the loss has been insurmountable.
The children taken to the boarding schools were taught to lose all their Indian-ness. Children who were intentionally adopted out to white families learned similar lessons. When tribal children in foster care are placed in a family or home that is not connected to the child’s family, culture, or tribe, the risk of loss continues....
The Indian Child Welfare Act (ICWA) was enacted by the United States Congress in 1978 to mitigate the ongoing harms of indigenous (tribal/native) children’s and families’ loss of their connections. Today, the ICWA continues to help indigenous families who are hurting and have many challenges to heal and keep their families safely together, rather than simply re-assign the indigenous child to another family. The Act requires that when it is necessary for a tribal child to be removed from their home and parents as the only way to keep them safe, that the State government who makes that decision must try and place those children with other relatives or tribal people.
Thus far the ICWA has survived constitutional challenges due to truths that the Supreme Court has had a difficult time reckoning with: that tribal nations on these lands have rights as nations. Thus, when children and families are protected by the ICWA, and States are restricted or limited in separating them, it is not because those people are racially “Indian,” but rather members of pre-existing and still-existing nations, struggling and fighting to remain what we have always been: connected communities of indigenous people, bound by language, love, culture, land, and values.
The ICWA continues to be challenged, almost exclusively by white foster families who feel that their love for a child they voluntarily and temporarily cared for is their entitlement, despite the breaks of connection and harm such a surrender could bring for the child and the community and tribe the child is inextricably bound to. That the broken hearts of white families when a tribal child is moved to a tribal home is portrayed as anti-White racism is shameful. The rights of a child and a colonized people to remain connected is the correct framing. Connection to our people, to our tribes, to our cultures is fundamental.
Bio: Sheri Freemont is and Indigenous layer (Turtle Mountain Chippewa and Omaha), currently working with Casey Family Programs, a national foundation aiming to reduce the need for foster care.