by Elle Prax, Community Relations Outreach Specialist
June 15, 2023

AP Photo/Mariam Zuhaib

Today’s Supreme Court decision to uphold the Indian Child Welfare Act (ICWA) is a significant victory for tribal communities.

The law was challenged in Haaland v. Brackeen by the state of Texas and three non-Native couples who wished to adopt Native children and overturn the law for racial discrimination and unconstitutionality.

In a 7-2 vote, the court maintained tribal jurisdiction over custody proceedings for tribal children under the age of 18. The decision further ruled ICWA to be lawful and nondiscriminatory, citing the American Indian and Alaskan Native (AIAN) population and sovereignty as a political designation, not a race-based distinction.

“We are overcome with joy that the Supreme Court has upheld the Indian Child Welfare Act,” wrote the National Indian Child Welfare Association in a recent statement. “The positive impact of today’s decision will be felt across generations.”

The importance of ICWA to healing historical trauma

For over 150 years, the Indian Civilization Act of 1819 disengaged and dissolved tribal communities. Under the guise of education, the government performed wholesale removal and abduction of Native children to be placed in federal or church boarding schools. With scant records, the exact number of minors taken remain unknown. By 1926, it is estimated that over 80% of Native progeny were attending boarding schools.

In 1978, the Indian Child Welfare Act was enacted as lawmakers recognized the alarming rate of unwarranted removal of Native children from their families.

However, the damage lives on.

Haunting memoirs continue to reveal a long history of brutality and institutional child abuse through malnourishment, neglect, sexual abuse, imprisonment, harsh punishments, child labor, and death in these boarding schools.

Decades of forced assimilation, cultural annihilation, discrimination, and traumatic suffering perpetuated a cycle of adverse childhood experiences, violence, and substance use generation after generation.

The work to heal and address intergenerational trauma has barely begun.

Watch this documentary of the Maine Wabanaki-State Child Welfare Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC), the first such task force in US history to investigate the history of American Indian boarding school system.