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Oklahoma tribal leaders, advocates and Biden administration react to SCOTUS decision on ICWA

Claire Anderson / Unsplash

The outcome of the Haaland v. Brackeen case was met with celebration and a sigh of relief in Indian country. KOSU has a roundup of reactions from tribal leaders from Oklahoma and beyond. President Joe Biden, Attorney General Merrick Garland and Secretary of the Interior Deb Haaland also weighed in on the decision upholding the law.

Tribal nations, including three that defended the law, issued a statement from their leaders: Cherokee Nation Principal Chief Chuck Hoskin, Jr., Morongo Band of Mission Indians Chairman Charles Martin, Oneida Nation Chairman Tehassi Hill and Quinault Indian Nation President Guy Capoeman.

Chuck Hoskin Jr., Principle Chief of Cherokee Nation
Cherokee Nation
Chuck Hoskin Jr., Principle Chief of Cherokee Nation

“Today, the Supreme Court once again ruled that ICWA, heralded as the gold standard in child welfare for over 40 years, is constitutional. Today’s decision is a major victory for Native tribes, children, and the future of our culture and heritage. It is also a broad affirmation of the rule of law, and of the basic constitutional principles surrounding relationships between Congress and tribal nations. We hope this decision will lay to rest the political attacks aimed at diminishing tribal sovereignty and creating instability throughout Indian law that have persisted for too long.”

The statement continued, “The Court once again demonstrated that it understands the legitimacy of ICWA and what it means for tribes, families, and children. By ruling on the side of children’s health and safety, the U.S. Constitution, and centuries of precedent, the justices have landed on the right side of history. With these latest political attacks on ICWA now behind us, we hope we can move forward on focusing on what is best for our children.”

The National Indian Child Welfare Association, an organization that was founded in 1983 to support tribal organizations and child welfare programs on reservations and Alaska Native villages, said opponents of the law have long tried to wield in court to undermine tribal sovereignty.

"For too long, ICWA’s opponents have used cases like Haaland v. Brackeen to try to undermine tribal sovereignty. Today, the Justices have sent a clear message that these biased, ahistorical attacks have no legal foundation and will not be tolerated. We hope this decision will lay to rest the political attacks, but let this case show that Indian Country and its many bipartisan allies are united in defense of Native children and of tribal sovereignty. "

Choctaw Nation Chief Gary Batton
Choctaw Nation
Choctaw Nation Chief Gary Batton

Chief Gary Batton, Choctaw Nation:

"Congress passed the Indian Child Welfare Act (ICWA) to right the extreme historical injustices committed against Native children and their families. The law remains a critical part of protecting Native American heritage and tribal sovereignty,” Batton said. “We are glad to see the Supreme Court recognized the important benefits of ICWA and allowed the law to stand.”

"The Choctaw Nation will continue to support children and families through its foster care system, Indian Child Welfare team, tribal attorneys and over 100 tribal services," he said.

Kate Fort, who is the Director of the Indian Law Clinic at the Michigan State University College of Law, wrote on Turtle Talk, an Indian Law Blog, said that the decision upheld the 5th Circuit's decisions.

“Essentially, the Court held that ICWA is not beyond the power of Congress to effectuate, and does not violate commandeering concerns by making states follow federal law. Neither the foster parents nor the state of Texas had standing to bring the equal protection arguments related to the third placement preferences. They did not rule on any merits regarding equal protection and ICWA.

Garland, United States Attorney General:

“The Justice Department is committed to honoring Tribal sovereignty and protecting Indian children and families. For nearly 45 years, the Indian Child Welfare Act has helped protect Tribal children from being unnecessarily separated from their parents, extended family, and Tribal communities.

“I am pleased that today’s Supreme Court decision in Haaland v. Brackeen rejected this challenge to the Indian Child Welfare Act. The Justice Department vigorously defended the statute before the Supreme Court and will continue to support the Indian Child Welfare Act and do everything in our power to protect Tribal communities and affirm Tribal sovereignty.”

President Biden, who said he was proud to support the law, released a statement saying the decision keeps in place vital protections for tribal sovereignty.

“Our Nation’s painful history looms large over today’s decision. In the not-so-distant past, Native children were stolen from the arms of the people who loved them. They were sent to boarding schools or to be raised by non-Indian families—all with the aim of erasing who they are as Native people and tribal citizens. These were acts of unspeakable cruelty that affected generations of Native children and threatened the very survival of Tribal Nations. The Indian Child Welfare Act was our Nation’s promise: never again.

U.S. Interior Secretary Deb Haaland testifies before the Senate Committee on Indian Affairs on June 22, 2022 in Washington, D.C.
U.S. Senate Committee on Indian Affairs/Screenshot by NPR
U.S. Interior Secretary Deb Haaland testifies before the Senate Committee on Indian Affairs on June 22, 2022 in Washington, D.C.

Haaland, the nation's first Indigenous Secretary of the Interior, whose own grandparents were sent to boarding schools also lauded the decision.

"For nearly two centuries, federal policies promoted the forced removal of Indian children from their families and communities through boarding schools, foster care, and adoption. Those policies were a targeted attack on the existence of Tribes, and they inflicted trauma on children, families and communities that people continue to feel today. Congress passed the Indian Child Welfare Act in 1978 to put an end to those policies."

National Council of Juvenile and Family Court Judges said the decision is in keeping with their commitment to educating and collaborating with state and tribal courts in matters of Indian child welfare issues.

"By prioritizing the placement of Native American children within their extended families, tribes, and Native American communities, this decision helps to rectify past wrongs and fosters a sense of identity and resilience. It underscores the obligation of state courts and child welfare agencies to actively preserve and strengthen Native American families, ensuring the best interests of Native American children are safeguarded."

There was some criticism of the result. The Goldwater Institute, a conservative think tank based in Arizona, filed an amicus brief in the case. The institute has been seen as one of the players seeking to undo federal Indian law, and also expressed their disappointment with the court's decision with a statement on their website.

"While it’s shameful that the Court would turn a deaf ear to the cries of our country’s most at-risk children, it is at least gratifying that the Court left open the door to future lawsuits challenging the race-based injustices caused by ICWA."

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Allison Herrera covered Indigenous Affairs for KOSU from April 2020 to November 2023.
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