Tuesday, December 23, 2008

Indian Child Welfare Act - Racist Policy or Cultural Preservation?

Is the ICWA a racist policy, or one established to protect Indian Culture?

To accurately answer the question, we first must understand the term "racism". Racism, by its simplest definition, is the belief that race is the primary determinant of human traits and capacities and that racial differences produce an inherent superiority of a particular race.

This is not a belief held by Indian Tribes, nor is it referenced to in the definition of ICWA. In fact, ICWA begins by clearly stating that the intent of the law is to ensure security and stability to Tribes and Children of the Tribes, as well as respecting the continued existence of cultural and social standards of the tribes. It is, therefore, a policy protecting the culture of Natives in America.

To summarize this short argument, before moving forward, it is necessary to reiterate the important fact that maintaining tribal integrity is NOT racist - it is a means of cultural survival.

Why is cultural survival important? Aren't all Indians the same? And shouldn't Indians simply give up and join the "American Culture"?

Now we are at the heart of this discussion. Let's start by answering the above questions in reverse order, and then we will be prepared to truly understand the importance of cultural survival.

The "American Culture", historically, has been one of a "gold rush" mentality - take what you can, as fast as you can, in order to achieve success - often times failing to regard the broader impact of their actions... Quality of life and future generations are second tier to individual achievement. The American Culture can be summed up, socially, as an agrarian society which became an industrial powerhouse - a focus on family interests, sporting and other social events, which as of late has become a society of consumerism and reality television - one would argue that this, in itself, is the erosion of classic American Culture. Should Indian Tribes give up reservations and become "American", giving up the memory of their individual culture? No more than should European Americans stop celebrating Oktoberfest, Halloween, or give up agrarian rituals, like summer vacation from schools... The call for further "Americanization" of the tribes is little more than a call to eliminate the reservations and complete the land-grab that began hundreds of years ago, and to eliminate the memory of the original inhabitants of this land - ancestors to many of my readers (and myself).

To answer the question about similarity between all Indian Tribes, one need look no further than a language stock map for original inhabitants, or reference any study on tribal culture to understand that though there are basic elements inherent to the nomadic or tribal lifestyle, each tribe of Indians is culturally unique. In fact, some tribes held no more than 50-100 members when they were "discovered" by white explorers, and had no ties to larger regional dominating tribes. Though similarities existed, regionally, it was out of necessity to survive in the lands - for instance, Plains Tribes, such as Oglala, where a nomadic hunting tribe, using housing styles and hunting tactics necessitated by the need to make rapid relocation of their village in order to stay near their migrating food supply. In comparison, Northwestern tribes, such as the Makah or Snoqualmie, were largely stationary and built permanent Longhouses where large portions of the tribes would live, and maintained diets largely from foraging and constant fish runs on the many rivers (or whales - in the case of the Makah). Language, lifestyle, societal structures, and even religion all varied from tribe to tribe, and from region to region... it would take years of study to fully grasp the complexities of each tribe, region, and culture - stressing the importance of passing these subtleties on to children of the tribe.

Which brings us to the final point - the importance of cultural survival. Michael Savage, a radio commentator, often says that there are three elements necessary to ensure a society succeeds - borders, language, culture. The borders have been stolen long ago from the Indian Tribes, replaced with reservations meant to "Americanize" Indians into an agrarian society - whose land reserves were arbitrarily reduced through a succession of court orders and illegal laws in order to establish homesteading across the nation.

Native Languages have been nearly lost for Indians, as part of the Americanization Era and Policy towards Indians in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. In fact, the 1868 Fort Laramie Treaty included a mandate for White teachers to teach English to Sioux children. As can be seen from the following map, even in areas of large Indian populations, by and large, language has been eradicated amongst those who still live within the reservations:

Special exception can be seen in areas of the Navajo/Hopi Nation, where 14-65% can speak their native tongue, and areas of Crow, Cheyenne, and Sioux reservations where 14-40% speak their native tongue... sadly, across America, native languages have been eliminated.

Finally, and most importantly - Culture. With the variations in Indian culture being as vast as the number of tribes, it is most certainly and fundamentally important that tribal culture be maintained and passed from generation to generation. It is the culture that defines who you are as a group, as an entity, as a people - and to lose that identity is to lose an important part of yourself. Rituals, art, music, clothing, even philosophy - it is all culturally relevant, and once lost, can never be fully regained. The importance of this culture is recognized in the ICWA, as the driving force behind the law's legitimacy... it is also the reason for Total Immersion teaching by tribes in the island nations, and being introduced by the Oglala Sioux on the Pine Ridge Reservation. The Congress was 100% correct in the ICWA document when they stated: "there is no resource that is more vital to the continued existence and integrity of Indian tribes than their children"...

In conclusion, the Indian Child Welfare Act is not a racist law prohibiting whites from adopting Indian children, rather, a thoughtful protection of the integrity of Indian Culture in America. It is a document recognizing the most vital resource to ensuring a continuation of tribal culture, and protecting the future of that culture. When a culture is in threat of extinction, lingually, artistically, or otherwise, it should be the will of the people to protect and preserve... that is the intent of this law - not as an obstacle or punishment to adopting families, but as a protection of a treasure at risk of being lost forever.


  1. I think you make a good case. I can't consider it a racist policy.

    I would only wonder if at times a mother is the denied the right to freely allow someone outside the tribe to adopt.

    However, having seen the situation of Maria Ramos... the abuse of her situation necessitates increased protection against exploitation in my opinion.

    You won my opinion on the matter.

    Merry Christmas.


  2. Conservative Guy,
    One might take the opposite position on the issue of "racism"-say you were a Foster Parent and had a little boy for three months and out of the blue you receive a call that, "the ____ tribe" is addament that the child be placed in a tribal home and that child is removed from your home and later when you are asked to care for an infant and after you have bonded to that child and vise-a-versa ( calling you "da-dee" );and did I say that almost a year has gone by and now you are informed that the mom (fresh out of the clink) has a tribal card,therefore that child is a member ( it does'nt matter that the "parent" was never an active member and the child had never been signed up as a member; the child is blond/blue eyed; the percent of Indian blood can be in the 1/100ths % ) Now this child needs to be in a "Tribal Foster Home"! No relation I'll have you know, just someone that can look like me but has an "Tribal License Plate" on there vehicle.
    I'm sorry,there most likely is a Native American Culture on the reservation(s) and in a small percentage of tribal homes but the vast majority of the Tribal members in this neck-of-the-woods live no differentially than you or I and there "Native American Pride" has been sold out to there Casinos!
    We have dearly cared for children of many races in the past years; we have adopted and we continue to foster but we can't have a Native American child.
    The priority use to be "in the best interest of the child"
    Now its: whats best for the tribe!

    1. I agree with you. My family went through a similar situation. However, my mom has enough Native American in her to get a tribal card, but my family has never had one in the past. It is sad to see the law hurt so many children because of race OR culture when many people do not fallow the culture that it is trying to protect. My mom is in the process of getting her tribal card so we can adopt a Native American, but will our culture or way of living change? No. We will still live our live the same way however, in the eyes of ICWA we will be more suited to adopt Native Children. I think the law served its purpose in the 70'-80's but in today's world it has no place. The child we were trying to adopt went back to his mother who had abandoned him since the age of 2. He was 15 when she got him back. The mother was in and out of jail, and had no ties to her Native American Culture. If it's about culture lets MAKE it about culture, but the way it stands today the law is simply about race. Do you have enough Native in you? That is all it cares about!

  3. Consider this. My sister had two children, placed with her BY THEIR FAMILIES because their familes knew Barb would take care of them. Barb had both of those children, loving them although they both had been abused, beaten, neglected, sexually assaulted by their native familes. She had the kids for over seven years--that's a lot of love. And ICWA found out and took the kids. Barb and Dave didn't even get to say goodbye to them. Why were the kids taken? Because Barb and David were white. Was it in the best interests of those children? Children who suffered in horrible ways in their native environment, who struggled for years to overcome the horror. Who loved and bonded with their 'Mom' and 'Dad'. And because my sister and brother-in-law are white, they were ripped from their family and everything they'd known for over seven years. Because Dave and Barb are white. Because ICWA is racist.