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Tribal Leaders Say Native Americans Must Remain Vigilant About ICWA

Fort Belknap Chairman Jeffrey Stiffarm said he was surprised that the U.S. Supreme Court upheld the Indian Child Welfare Act because of what the justices did to Roe v. Wade.

Nearly one year ago, in Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization, the Supreme Court reversed landmark abortion protections, and Chairman Stiffarm thought the High Court would undo protections for Native American children too.

However, he also believes the Supreme Court could still overturn ICWA in the future.

“The federal government and states alike are constantly attacking people’s treaties, our rights to abolishing reservations, and our rights as Native people,” Stiffarm said. “They’re gonna continue to attack anything, everything towards tribes.”

Last week, in Haaland v. Brackeen, the Supreme Court upheld ICWA in a 7-2 decision that means the law continues to give preference for Native children up for adoption to be placed with Native American families. Justices Clarence Thomas and Samuel Alito were the lone dissenters.

Following the decision, Native American leaders in Montana said tribes must continue to stay vigilant against overreach by the federal government and racist influences, such as former President Donald Trump. However, they also praised proactive legislation by Rep. Jonathan Windy Boy, D-Box Elder.

According to the Bureau of Indian Affairs website, ICWA’s purpose is, in part, “to protect the best interest of Indian children and to promote the stability and security of Indian tribes and families by the establishment of minimum Federal standards for the removal of Indian children and placement of such children in homes which will reflect the unique values of Indian culture.”

Since ICWA was adopted in 1978, 13 states passed their own versions of the legislation. During the Montana Legislature this year, Rep. Jonathan Windy Boy, D-Box Elder, sponsored House Bill 317, or the Montana Indian Child Welfare Act, or MICWA, in response to what was the upcoming Supreme Court decision.

Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes Chairman Tom McDonald said he is grateful the state was proactive in recently passing the Montana ICWA bill, but it is no substitute for the federal protections that ICWA provides for Indian families.

McDonald also spoke to the intergenerational trauma the overturning of ICWA could have brought.

“It definitely would have reopened wounds and would attack the ability of keeping Indian families together,” McDonald said. “Upholding ICWA will continue the healing process from cultural and historical trauma caused by catastrophic assimilation policies, such as those caused by the boarding school era.”

In a news release, Western Native Voice deputy director Ta’jin Perez said the ruling sends a strong message on the unique status of tribes and their inherent sovereignty. Western Native Voice has a mission to work with Native American communities on organizing, education and advocacy.

“All of us remain vigilant of future attacks on tribal sovereignty in whatever form they may take,” Perez said.

Chairman Stiffarm said ICWA is important for the Fort Belknap Community and for the Native community as it keeps children within their own tribes. ensuring they will stay connected to their own culture and spirituality and know where they come from.

If ICWA was overturned, Stiffarm said he believes the experiences of the past generation with boarding schools would have replayed itself. In many cases, Native children were forcibly removed from their homes, stripped of their cultures and brutalized.

“I think our children would have experienced what their moms, grandmothers, and grandfathers experienced when they were forced off to boarding schools,” Chairman Stiffarm said. “Other religions, cultures and their ideologies were forced upon them, and they wouldn’t have known their own culture or their people. That’s what would happen.”

Stiffarm also said he looks up to Windy Boy, saying he works hard and has a lot of respect in the legislature.

“I was very shocked that he got it (MICWA) passed within the state of Montana because this is a huge red state,” Stiffarm said. “Indian sovereignty is attacked daily by the legislators of the state. But what he does and what he has accomplished, and I think why it was passed, is out of respect for him. Because he’s been in there a long time.”

Stiffarm also said Native people can’t stop fighting the system, and all the reservations in Montana need to stick together when something like this subject comes up again.

“The ideology behind Donald Trump, and when he became president and his thoughts of the white race is the perfect race — these racist people came out of the woodwork and became more vocal,” Stiffarm said. “And it really became prevalent in the state of Montana. And like I said, we got to stand together and not back down.”

In a concurring opinion, Justice Neil Gorsuch, who voted with the majority and has extensive knowledge of federal Indian law, discussed sovereignty as well. He’s the only justice from the West.

“Often, Native American Tribes have come to this Court seeking justice only to leave with bowed heads and empty hands,” Gorsuch wrote.

“But that is not because this Court has no justice to offer them. Our Constitution reserves for the Tribes a place - an enduring place in the structure of American life. It promises them sovereignty for as long as they wish to keep it.

“And it secures that promise by divesting States of authority over Indian affairs and by giving the federal government certain significant (but limited and enumerated) powers aimed at building a lasting peace.”

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