The year was 1994. The sound of drums beat rhythmically in sync with one another, the elders robed with headdresses and face paint while singing and chanting in harmony, creating an energy that screamed renewal and revival. Everyone was so full of laughter and joy — it was a party.
“Pow Wow!” My earliest experience engaging with my culture. Hidden in some community basketball gym was this gem of a ceremony. I remember while the elders and young adults were participating and engaging in the festivities, my siblings and I ran around free spirited and careless with all the young boys and girls, without a worry in the world. A feeling I will never forget. It was like I belonged — naturally without fear, culturally without force, in solidarity with my people.
The year was 1995. I was four years old. The police showed up in full force responding to a call of domestic violence. That day they arrested my parents, my siblings and me. We were all taken into the police station in the back of separate police cars. Nothing was ever the same after that day the white men in uniform came into our lives. Being removed from the care of my parents and placed into the child welfare system felt like a parallel jail sentence for me.
My family and I moved around a lot. We lived in a station wagon, trailers, hotel rooms, family members’ houses and even closet rooms. My parents had their issues, but I know that they loved my siblings and I, and they made sure that we had our needs met as best as they could fulfill them, given the history that fell before them.
Historically, for the Indian child, the reason for forced removals were to “Kill the Indian and save the man!” Since its conception in 1776, the founding fathers of the United States, driven by manifest destiny, operationalized a nation to conquer all peoples on the North American continent who weren’t Anglo-American, also known as white, by means of force or fear.
In 1819, the United States instituted the Civilization Fund Act to eradicate tribal communities by funding missionaries, church leaders and the federal government to establish boarding schools in Indian territories. The general attitudes of the late 1800s and early- to mid-1900s about Native Americans was to “Americanize” them through forced religious conversions, mass genocide, indenturing and incarceration, and of course, family separation.
Professor Tera Hunter, a professor of history and African American studies at Princeton University, wrote in The Long History of Child-Snatching that “African-Americans were not alone in suffering separations. Starting in 1879, tens of thousands of Native Americans were required to leave their families and attend boarding schools.” She then went on to write, “Assimilation was the main goal of the schools: The children’s names were changed, their language, religions and other cultural traditions suppressed.”
The Indian Child Welfare Act (ICWA), enacted in 1978, was implemented because Native children were disproportionately represented in the child welfare system. Since its enactment, ICWA has been labeled by some as the gold standard of child welfare because of its prioritization of family, culture and community.
The year was 1997. My family was forever displaced and changed for a lifetime. Not only were parental rights stricken from my parents, but according to them and various other aunts, uncles and cousins, ICWA was never mentioned or properly investigated. The harm that befell me as I entered the child welfare system is not unique. It happens to Native children every day, all the time. A recent study done by the National Indian Child Welfare Association shows that Native children nationwide are still overrepresented in the child welfare system at 2.6 times greater the rate of the general child population.
Historical trauma has a way of passing through generations of people by the manifestation of relived cycles and experiences. Systemic barriers and racist practices kept my family and I from staying together. My parents perhaps were suffering remnants of assimilation themselves, which kept them from the knowledge and wisdom of our ancestors, incapacitating their understanding of the importance of keeping my siblings and I within our Native culture. That day, I didn’t just lose my parents and my siblings. I also lost my culture and heritage, my belief system and values, and my ancestral bloodline. I lost my identity.
Currently, the legitimacy of ICWA is in the process of being challenged in the Supreme Court, with the argument that ICWA is a race-based policy and leaves Native children at greater risk of abuse and neglect. However, as tribal governments are under attack for their God given right to sustain our future generations, it is important to know that ICWA is not a race-based policy, rather it is a political position. It respects federally recognized tribes as being sovereign and self-governing. Tribal governments should be the only ones allowed to intervene on behalf of tribal children.
As I reflect on my journey and how sexual and physical abuse, incarceration, addiction, homelessness and poverty, and mental illness still became a part of my story despite being “saved” by the child welfare system, it is evident that there are parallels between the past histories and our present situations. If we want to truly repair and heal our tribal communities, we must do it through educating legal professionals about ICWA.
If you are a social worker in California’s child welfare system, I urge you to ask for training and information on ICWA, specifically how to implement California’s ICWA laws. These laws are the importation of the federal act into our state law.
We must support legislation intended to protect and strengthen tribal sovereignty and tribal child welfare. We must outlast those determined to erase all the protections that ICWA provides in order for Native children to flourish in their culture and community, even if the parents can’t be involved.