Luce Fellow Spotlight: Evelyn Lance Blanchard

First Nations Development Institute (First Nations) is excited to partner with the Henry Luce Foundation (Luce) for a second year of the Luce Indigenous Knowledge Fellowship. In 2020, First Nations and Luce awarded 10 $50,000 fellowships to advance and support the work of Indigenous knowledge holders and knowledge makers dedicated to creating positive community change. In 2021, they expanded the fellowship award to $75,000 and 13 new fellows committed to preserving and sharing Indigenous knowledge with future generations.


Evelyn Lance Blanchard, MSW, Ph.D. (Laguna/Yaqui), is a social work activist, practitioner, and educator. Blanchard has worked in Native children and family services for 60 years. She was a key figure in helping launch the 1978 Indian Child Welfare Act (ICWA), the intent of which is to prevent the breakup of the Indian family. The law seeks to protect Native children by ensuring they stay connected to their families, tribes, and cultures.

Today, Blanchard is known by her colleagues as the “Mother of the ICWA.”

Evelyn Lance Blanchard, Ph.D., Laguna/Yaqui

In 1974 Congressional hearings which launched the effort to enact the law, the Association on American Indian Affairs reported findings of a national survey of public and private child-placing agencies. The survey showed that one out of every four Indian children had been removed from her or his parents or caretakers, 85% of whom had been placed with non-Indian substitute parents and institutions.

Blanchard testified at the hearings, where she had the opportunity to meet national tribal leaders, Native grassroots workers, and officials of Indian rights organizations who had been involved in efforts to protect Indian families and children for many years.

From discussions with tribal leaders, she was able to define the role she could play in the effort. Immediate work involved direct assistance to Washington state tribes to modify state administrative codes governing family and children’s practices in their homelands. The tribes were successful and gained control of department practice of unwarranted removal of their children.

Other notable career achievements

Blanchard was also involved in an educational effort to inform national social welfare organizations of the need for the law, and participation in tribal and off-reservation grassroots efforts to enact the law. In 1980, Blanchard received a professional excellence award from her alma mater, the University of Denver, School of Social Work, for her work to enact the ICWA at its 50th anniversary.

After enactment of the law, Blanchard’s work as an expert witness expanded throughout the country and Canada. A precedent was established in an adoption case in High Prairie, Alberta, where the district court permitted the adoption of a Native child by non-Indian petitioners, but required the couple to develop relationships with the child’s relations and the Lesser Slave Lake tribal community, determined necessary for the child’s developing identity.

Other Canadian efforts included work as a resource person in the development of Native social work curricula at Grant McEwan College in Alberta and the University of Regina in Saskatchewan.

In 1983, she participated in a week-long symposium held by the Mi’kmaq Nation to assess its social development at which she recommended the Nation establish a Native social work program at Dalhousie University in Halifax, Nova Scotia.

In 1985, she was invited to teach the inaugural course of the program. Other work included consultation with First Nation’s family and children’s programs in Alberta, Manitoba, and Saskatchewan. She served as a resource person at the first national meeting of Native Child Care Workers in Ottawa to discuss development of national legislation, like the ICWA, with Canadian national officials.

The expansion of Blanchard’s expert witness work in our country led to the development of a project to confront state agencies and courts regarding their use of what was called the “psychological parent theory.”

The theory was used to deny return of the child to her/his parents and caretakers based on the agency’s judgment that the child had become strongly attached to the substitute caretakers and removal from them would inflict irreparable harm and damage to the child.

The prevalence of states’ use of this defense was facilitated by the passage of the 1980 Child Welfare and Adoption Assistance Act focused on children who remained in substitute care for many years without plans for permanency. The Act provided financial support to foster parents who sought to adopt children in their care. The “fos-adopt” practice, as it came to be called, was common and widespread in cases of Indian children in state custody. Blanchard partnered with attorneys from Oklahoma Legal Services, the Native American Program, and Oklahoma City Indian Center’s legal program. The team concentrated its activities in schools of social work and Indian and non-Indian child welfare conferences.

Throughout the ‘80s, Blanchard and fellow members of the National Indian Social Workers Association testified at congressional hearings to provide information about ICWA program developments and to press Congress to provide adequate program funding.

From 1980-1982, she served as a consulting editor for Social Work, the journal of the National Association of Social Work related to Indian affairs and public health. She published articles in the journal and other periodicals regarding the need for the law and its implementation.

How Blanchard used the Luce Fellowship

Blanchard’s dissertation, “To Prevent the Breakup of the Indian Family: The Development of the Indian Child Welfare Act of 1978” chronicles the 1974 Congressional hearings that launched the enactment of the law, during which she gave testimony.

The original intent was to write a social work text that addressed child and family practice in Indian Country. The direction of the work changed when she accepted an offer from the University of Nebraska Press to publish a memoir of her career. The change gave her the opportunity to tell the story of ICWA’s development and implementation and the many people involved, and to acknowledge their contribution.

The fellowship year was devoted to research in which she reconnected with colleagues to capture the shared experience of passage and implementation of the law. The workers were a youthful, energetic, committed, and idealistic group who were pioneers in the creation of the practice of Native children and family law and social work practice.

Indian Country was represented by young, well-seasoned tribal leaders who had already spent many years protecting the rights of their people. The work to enact and implement the law was accomplished in a highly charged political environment. The memoir will be framed in an historical/political landscape to educate the reader about the enduring struggle of Native people to preserve their life ways and tribal resources, the most precious of which is their children.

The unwarranted removal of Native children has deep historical roots. There are reports of child removal as early as the 1540s in New Mexico. Children, identified as “promising youth” by the Catholic clergy, were removed from their families and sent to a seminary in Durango, Mexico, for seven years where they were educated in church doctrine.

Upon their return home, they were expected to report infractions of religious doctrine and practice by village members to the local priest and to convert their relatives and other village members.

In Blanchard’s family, her great-great-grandfather was sent to the Durango seminary sometime time between 1830-1835. In about 1904, her maternal grandmother was taken captive following a battle between the Yaqui people and the Mexican government.

The majority of captives, including entire families, were enslaved in the henequin plantations in the Yucatan where many of them died. Other children were placed into servitude with prominent Mexican families. That was her grandmother’s fate.

In 1913 at age 14, Blanchard’s father was enrolled in Carlisle Indian Industrial School where he remained until its closure in 1918. In 1924 at age 12, her mother was removed from her home and placed in a state institution where she was incarcerated until she was 18.

Words of gratitude

Blanchard is deeply grateful for the fellowship support which has made it possible to conduct the research necessary to provide a full picture of child removal in Indian Country from historical time to the present. She is mindful of the reality that the majority of our nation’s citizens have never met an Indian and have no knowledge of the centuries-long practice of child removal and the consequent destruction of the Indian family and the weakening of tribal society.

She says it has been a privilege and inspiration to have been introduced to other Indigenous scholars and artists who, like her, have pursued their dreams over many years, often in isolation and with little support or recognition of the significance of their work in the lives of their people.

“The assistance of First Nations’ leadership and staff has been especially meaningful and useful. It is a rare experience to work with individuals who understand the importance of the preservation of knowledge in its many forms and the role their dedication plays in the continuance of Native life,” Blanchard says.