ARCHIVAL (KPIX, 6-15-23):NEWS REPORT: Today the Supreme Court voted to uphold a decades old law that governs tribal adoptions.
ARCHIVAL (NBC15, 6-16-23):NEWS REPORT: Its known as the Indian Child Welfare Act or I.C.W.A.
NARRATION: So, what is the Indian Child Welfare Act? And why is it relevant today? The story goes back to the 1950s and 60s when Native children were routinely taken from their families by social workers and placed in white homes.
ARCHIVAL (ASSOCIATED PRESS, 7-16-68):LEWIS GOODHOUSE (TRIBAL CHAIRMAN, DEVILS LAKE SIOUX): Lately here, we’ve had a lot of trouble with the social welfare at Benson County coming in and taking children away from the mothers and fathers and grandmothers.ALVINA ALBERTS: We want our children and our grandchildren, but we are not allowed to keep them.
REBECCA BLACK (QUILEUTE-ENROLLED QUINAULT INDIAN NATION): We call it the scoop era because your children weren’t safe playing in their front yards. Your children weren’t safe walking home from school.
ARCHIVAL (ASSOCIATED PRESS, 7-16-68):JEANNETTE GOODHOUSE: When a new car comes into the yard, they run in the house and Mama, are they coming after us now? And theyre always, every day and every night when a car comes, they’re afraid that they’re coming now to get them. Cause they hear the talk.
AMY LONETREE (HO-CHUNK NATION, PROFESSOR OF HISTORY, UNIVERSITY OF CALIFORNIA, SANTA CRUZ): Native families were basically under surveillance by social welfare agencies and they used any excuse they could to remove Native children.
MARIE STARR (MUCKLESHOOT INDIAN TRIBE, FORMER TRIBAL CHAIRWOMAN) Back then there wasn’t any running water. There was no electricity. So, if you have a case worker coming in and seeing somebody living, what they thought in, not in very good living conditions, and they had kids, they would remove those kids.
SANDY WHITE HAWK (SICANGU LAKOTA, ROSEBUD SIOUX TRIBE): My very first recall is being lifted into the window of a red truck and placed between two strangers. And the smell. The smell of the skin of the woman next to me. The smell of the dust of the, the man, and these became my parents, my adoptive parents.
BERTRAM HIRSCH (FORMER LEGAL COUNSEL, ASSOCIATION ON AMERICAN INDIAN AFFAIRS): Starting in 1968, I was tasked with trying to determine what was going on with tribes nationwide. Virtually every tribe in the country was experiencing somewhere in the 25 to 35 percent, uh, out-of-home placement situation for all their kids. There was frequently not an allegation of child abuse. Almost never of child abuse. Child neglect? Yes. Neglect by the lights of what these caseworkers or social workers wanted to define as neglect, which was almost always conditions of poverty. They werent doing the same thing to white poor folks. They werent doing that.
REBECCA BLACK: My mother was taken during that era from our people, from my grandparents and my great grandparents. While my grandma and my great grandparents are fighting to regain custody, my mother has already been transported out of state into white adoption. The family that adopted my mother was really abusive. And when she got pregnant with me they sent her away to a Catholic girls’ home. She went into labor and then, the nuns brought, uh, paperwork for her. They said, you just need to sign these. And I was taken from the room, and she asked, where’s my child? Where’s my little girl? I want to hold my baby. And, they told her, you will never see your child. You signed papers, adoption papers for her.
BERTRAM HIRSCH: The Bureau of Indian Affairs established this project called the Indian Adoption Project, which was funded and financed by the federal government, but it was carried out by the Child Welfare League of America and its affiliated adoption agencies.
REBECCA BLACK: These are the papers that changed my life forever.
BERTRAM HIRSCH: The market for Indian children emerged because the white families wanted to adopt a white baby. But white babies were in short supply. And so they started to look elsewhere. And the next best thing, it seems, was a Native American kid.
REBECCA BLACK: We were being advertised to middle-class, white America as of these, like, poor Indian waifs who have no one, who have nothing.
SANDY WHITE HAWK (DIRECTOR OF HEALING PROGRAMS, NATIONAL NATIVE AMERICAN BOARDING SCHOOL HEALING COALITION): And they made sure they used words that made us seem like we were orphans. The child that nobody wanted. I wasnt needing a home. I had a home. And I had a family. I had a huge family that cared and loved for me. But I remember my adoptive mom said, your mother didnt really want you. She just wanted to keep you so she would get a welfare check so she could drink. That I needed to be grateful, more grateful because any Indian kid on the reservation would be happy to be where Im at.
BERTRAM HIRSCH: Everybody knew that there were children in out-of-home placements. But nobody connected the dots and realized that this was an epidemic.
ARCHIVAL (U.S. SENATE SUBCOMMITTEE HEARING, NBC NEWS, 4-8-74):SENATOR JAMES ABOURZEK: We have called these hearings today to begin to define the specific problems that American Indian families face in raising their children.
BERTRAM HIRSCH: This was an unknown issue in the Congress, and we had to make it a known issue.
ARCHIVAL (U.S. SENATE SUBCOMMITTEE HEARING, NBC NEWS, 4-8-74):CHERYL SPIDER DECOTEAU: They always come to me and said that wasn’t, I wasn’t a very good mother and everything, and that my children would be better off if they were in a white home or if they were adopted out.SENATOR JAMES ABOURZEK: They, they said that, but were they ever able to prove that in court, or did they give anybody a specific example of why you weren’t a good mother?BERTRAM HIRSCH: It was never proven in court that she was unfit.
AMY LONETREE: We saw an issue that had to be addressed. And you had grandmas and aunties gathering together. And they were out there fighting for our children.
ARCHIVAL (ABC, 7-17-78):NEWS REPORT: Several hundred Indians and their supporters walked from the Lincoln Memorial past the Washington Monument up to Capitol Hill today to support certain legislation, including one proposed law that will affect their right to decide what can happen to Indian children.
BERTRAM HIRSCH (PRINCIPAL AUTHOR, INDIAN CHILD WELFARE ACT): We mounted a massive campaign to get this law through. It was just jubilation. You know, just total jubilation.
NARRATION: Hirsch was the main author of the Indian Child Welfare Act, which passed in 1978. It affirmed the authority of tribes over their children, and enacted legal protections for Native families. If a child had to be removed, it prioritized placement with relatives, tribal members, and in other Native homes.
MARIE STARR: The Indian Child Welfare Act, that was a blessing for our children. Some of the kids were coming back from being out in foster care and, they were hurt. Their, their spirit was hurt. They didn’t know where they belonged. Their identity was gone. You want to make sure that your kids are safe. Let us do our job. Let us take care of our children. And it is our right. It’s our right to take care of them.
NARRATION: But more than four decades after the law was passed, it was the target of a lawsuit and ended up before the Supreme Court.
ARCHIVAL (KOTV, 11-11-22):NEWS REPORT: Petitioners argued today I.C.W.A. went beyond Congress authority to govern Indian affairs.
ARCHIVAL (ABC, 6-15-23):NEWS REPORT: The law was being challenged by a group of white Christian foster parents who alleged that it was unconstitutional racial discrimination.
ARCHIVAL (ABC, 11-30-22):NEWS REPORT: One Texas family wants justices to strike it down and make it easier for non Native families to adopt Native American kids.
NARRATION: Native communities and supporters were galvanized by the threat to the law, and the threat to tribal sovereignty.
ARCHIVAL (11-10-22):CHARLES MARTIN (CHAIRMAN, MORONGO BAND OF MISSION INDIANS): We will not go back to a time when our children were stolen and taken away from our homes. We will not go back to a time when we lost our voice and our power to protect our families.
AMY LONETREE: This legislation is so important. It is about the future of our nations, the future of our communities.
NARRATION: But in June 2023, the Supreme Court rejected the challenges to the law. Justice Neil Gorsuch wrote that Native American tribes remain independent sovereigns with the exclusive power to manage their internal matters.
REBECCA BLACK: I think of the generational suffering that my family has endured and I think about my life and um, the, the disconnection that I felt, and I searched and I longed for, um, my whole life. And had I.C.W.A. been in place at the time of my forced adoption, I would have been placed with someone within our extended family. I would have grown up immersed with my community and my culture. And so, healing for me has taken a long time. And it wasn’t until connecting to our culture and our ceremony that I started this healing of my own.
NARRATION: For Rebecca Black, witnessing her daughter and grandsons develop their own connection to their culture, is another step forward in overcoming the past.
AMANDA CHAVIRA (REBECCA BLACKS DAUGHTER, QUILEUTE DESCENDANT, FUTURE CITIZEN OF QUINAULT INDIAN NATION): During the ceremonies, like when Im dancing and Im singing and Im able to be a part of that, it feels powerful. Because its healing. Its beautiful. Its amazing to know that youre there witnessing me doing my thing. And each time that we do it I feel stronger.
REBECCA BLACK: Yeah.
AMANDA CHAVIRA: I feel my Indian is stronger.
REBECCA BLACK: Yes. It took four generations to heal the trauma that was created from my mother being taken from our people.
AMANDA CHAVIRA: And so, the hope is, is that with each generation its going to get a little bit easier on them, you know, a little bit less that theyre going to have to heal from.