Comment: Future of Native sovereignty and children at stake

A Supreme Court case threatens to continue the harms of boarding schools on tribal culture.

By Laural Ballew (Ses Yehomia/tsi kuts bat soot) / For The Herald

The Indian Child Welfare Act (ICWA) is regarded by experts in the field as the “gold standard” in child welfare best practice, creating much-needed reform on practices that routinely separated Native children from their families in the past. And it is still critically important today given the continued overrepresentation of Native children in the child welfare system caused by systemic and intergenerational trauma and neglect, as well as structural bias.

But ICWA faces a new, pressing challenge as the U.S. Supreme Court recently heard from opponents who argue that the law is racist and unconstitutional because it creates a different set of rules for Native children. This is an intentional misunderstanding of tribal sovereignty, and an attempt to use ICWA as a backdoor to ultimately undermine the rights of tribes in areas like land rights, natural resources and gaming.

When a Native child is put up for adoption, ICWA prioritizes placing that child first with relatives, then other members of the child’s tribe, and then other Native families. These placement preferences, the non-Native foster parents claim in Haaland v. Brackeen, give them “fourth-tier status.” Citing the equal-protection clause of the 14th Amendment, the plaintiffs claim that ICWA violates their constitutional rights by discriminating against them due to their racial group.

Precedents supporting the ICWA date back to the early days of our republic. The ICWA draws classifications based on connections to tribal groups, not on race, and under the Constitution, those tribal groups are separate sovereign nations. Today, tribal groups have their own police forces, courts, elections, governments and lands. What racial group can say they have the same thing in the United States?

The ICWA was adopted by Congress in 1978 in response to a family separation crisis. Research at the time found that one-third of all American Indian and Alaska Native children were separated from their parents, extended families and tribal communities by state child welfare and private adoption agencies, compounding nearly 200 years of cultural genocide through a boarding school system that began in the early 1800s, and actual genocide as European American pioneers “settled” this continent.

As tribal liaison at Western Washington University, I see firsthand the modern-day ripple effects of this legacy, including the alienation that Native students feel from being cut off from tightknit home communities while studying in predominantly white school systems. It doesn’t help that most institutions of higher education have a disproportionately low number of Native teachers and a limited number of lessons on Native American history and culture, affecting everything from feeling a sense of belonging to academic performance, retention and graduation.

We have been working steadily to address much of this in recent years, thanks in large part to an engaged Native American Student Union and to an administration that have listened closely and begun to act. Creating my position and office was one such act. Integrating Native ways of knowing and being into our academic programs is another ongoing effort. And securing funding and land for a new Coast Salish-style longhouse “House of Healing” is yet another powerful step toward addressing past wrongs.

More holistically and in a powerful parallel to the discussions playing out today at the U.S. Supreme Court, is the idea that Native children, from infancy to young adulthood, need a connection to the people and places they come from. I meet students all the time who have grown up outside their tribes, learning later in life that they were Native, and they always say to me that they’re missing something, that they feel lost or forgotten.

We have a term in the Native community for the children who grow up outside the tribes: Lost Birds. Feeling lost and without community only compounds the struggles, the isolation and the lack of resources Native people face every day in this country.

Our children are born with an innate sense of belonging that is nurtured and embraced within our tribal cultures. Maintaining connections with their Native histories and their identities is critical to their sense of self, their well-being, their ability to thrive one day as Native adults in the wider world and their ability to pass down their rich and complex Native ways of knowing to future generations.

We are not racial groups. We are nations. And we have a fundamental right to our heritage, to our future and to raise our children as the sacred members of our tribal groups that they are.

Laural Ballew (Ses Yehomia/tsi kuts bat soot) is the executive director of American Indian/Alaska Native and First Nations Relations & Tribal Liaison at Western Washington University in Bellingham. She is a Swinomish tribal member living on the Lummi reservation with direct family ties to Aleut, Nooksack, Upper Skagit and Suquamish tribes.

Talk to us

More in Opinion

toon
Editorial cartoons for Tuesday, Feb. 7

A sketchy look at the news of the day.… Continue reading

The Snohomish County Auditor's Office is one of many locations where primary election ballots can be dropped off on Tuesday. (Sue Misao / The Herald) 20180806
Editorial: Voting’s a duty, but should it be mandatory?

Legislation to require voter registration and voting needs more discussion among the public, first.

Marysville schools working hard to improve, help them with levy

As an educator in Marysville, I feel compelled to share how important… Continue reading

HeraldNet app allows me to keep up with news

First I was pretty miffed. I’m 76, my wife says I’m a… Continue reading

Ban net-pen fish farms in federal waters, too

As we go into 2023, we all want to start the new… Continue reading

Saunders: If Hunter Biden’s looking for cash, he’s in trouble

He hasn’t faced criminal charges before for his indiscretions, but that may be changing soon.

Herald columnist Julie Muhlstein received this card, by mail at her Everett home, from the Texas-based neo-Nazi organization Patriot Front.  The mail came in June, a month after Muhlstein wrote about the group's fliers being posted at Everett Community College and in her neighborhood.  (Dan Bates / The Herald)





(Dan Bates / The Herald)
Editorial: Treat violent extremism as the disease it is

The state Attorney General urges a commission to study a public health response to domestic terrorism.

Photo Courtesy The Boeing Co.
On September 30, 1968, the first 747-100 rolled out of Boeing's Everett factory.
Editorial: What Boeing workers built beyond the 747

More than 50 years of building jets leaves an economic and cultural legacy for the city and county.

Marysville School District Superintendent Zac Robbins, who took his role as head of the district last year, speaks during an event kicking off a pro-levy campaign heading into a February election on Thursday, Jan. 5, 2023, at the Marysville Historical Society Museum in Marysville, Washington. (Ryan Berry / The Herald)
Editorial: Voters have role in providing strong schools

A third levy failure for Marysville schools would cause even deeper cuts to what students are owed.

Most Read