Why I Support ICWA

In this Guest Blog, First Nations’ friend and ally Linda Waters shares her thoughts on the Indian Child Welfare Act and the reasons her support of Native families is unwavering.

I first learned about the Indian Child Welfare Act (ICWA) in a First Nations Development Institute weekly digest email this spring. Then I attended online presentations by Dr. Sarah Kastelic, executive director of the National Indian Child Welfare Association, who provided particulars about the original need for, and renewed challenges to, ICWA.

The atrocities of the Indian boarding schools recently in the news are horrendous to hear. There is lasting harm to those stolen children and their relatives. But at least those schools are all closed. I was devastated to learn that Native children are still being stolen from their families and communities, only now it’s by using the child welfare system.

I learned Native children are removed from their homes by state child welfare services at a rate several times that of white children.  These Native children are too often placed with white families, rather than being allowed to be cared for by extended family or their greater tribal communities. Once away from their birth culture for years, they typically have a very difficult time knowing their identity – they are not treated as white, but they are estranged from their Native roots.

A modern version of colonization

Uncomfortably, I see from Dr. Kastelic and others how this is the next step in the current version of the recipe for colonization, which is consistent around the world, and it is chillingly effective. The recipe is:

  1. Take Indigenous land
  2. Control the natural resources used and stewarded by Indigenous communities, especially the water
  3. Usurp or take over Indigenous governance
  4. Delegitimize and question Indigenous culture and values
  5. Take the children

Taking the children steals the future of a community. Without having family to love and teach them within their own communities, young ones are exposed only to the colonial mindset, and their original culture becomes lost. This is undeniably intentional.

Why would people do this? Undoubtedly, some people are unfeeling and cruel. But it appears most just think that they know what’s best for others, based on their own cultural values. Different values are seen as lesser values. Mainstream white culture assumes that economic issues are more important than the less visible and less easily definable values of community and cultural belonging.

Native families are much more likely to be economically disadvantaged than white families (due to systemic disparities going back centuries). We know this and can see the historical reasons. However, the child welfare system and white adoptive parents see themselves as “saving” Native children from their perceived resource-poor communities, regardless of how much those community members love and care for them.

If Native families are lacking resources, the solution is surely to make changes to allow the return of more resources, rather than taking children from their loving relatives.

The people committing these abuses may think they are doing good. However, when they approach child welfare situations with unconscious bias or unacknowledged stereotypes of Native peoples as less-than-human, it does not create healthy outcomes. There is paternalism, arrogance, and white saviorism. Native children and tribal communities are greatly harmed.

Unsurprisingly, in a country organized around maximizing individual profits, Native children become commodities to be bought, sold, and used, rather than loved as growing humans. A quick look at those bringing the challenge to ICWA clearly shows profit motivations for several: private adoption agencies and adoption attorneys make top dollar on adopting out Native children, who are often seen as “exotic” to white families.

The need for ICWA

The Indian Child Welfare Act was put in place to counteract both anti-Native bias and profit-driven theft of Native children to be put up for adoption. ICWA provides active protection of Native kids. It also guarantees a tribal voice in matters of the welfare of tribal children. Indigenous nations must have sovereignty over all their citizens, including children. Protections for Indigenous children need to be in place at the national level, nation to nation.

Those bringing the current challenge to ICWA are white, using the systems already in place to favor white people. Preserving ICWA is necessary to avoid making the child welfare system much worse for Native communities. As a white Euro American, I ally myself with efforts to protect ICWA, pushing back against the recipe for colonization.

Linda Waters lives with her husband in central Washington State, where she grows roses, enjoys time with family and friends, and tries to do her part in making the world a more life-affirming place for all.