Being a grandparent comes with trials and triumphs, sleepless nights and days that fly by, boundless joy and a sense of purpose. I’ve loved all of it, and it was only made possible by a law that is essential to keeping Native American families like mine together. It’s called the Indian Child Welfare Act (ICWA), and it’s at risk of being overturned by the highest court in the country this year.
Passed in 1978, ICWA came as a response to the alarming rate of Native American children taken from their homes and families, even when fit and willing relatives were available to care for them. Under ICWA, tribes can play a role in the foster care process, helping to ensure that Native American families stay together whenever safe and possible.
My granddaughter — like me, a descendant of the White Earth Band of the Minnesota Chippewa Tribe — was born into a loving and stable home. For her first three years, I spent every day with her— I bathed her, dressed her, changed her diapers, played with her, sang to her, comforted her, cared for her, and tucked her into bed at night. I had the kind of life that grandparents dream of — I raised my granddaughter alongside my daughter, all under the same roof.
That changed in 2014, when my daughter fell into a drug addiction and household finances became harder to manage. During that time, I kept my granddaughter safe, put her needs first, and pushed my daughter toward the path to recovery. But the bills piled up, eviction became inevitable, and my life became a grandparent’s worst nightmare in the blink of an eye.
That summer, I got a call from my daughter. She had been arrested, and my granddaughter was placed in emergency custody. When I tried to rescue my grandchild, the social worker responsible for her case told me I didn’t qualify to care for her because of my criminal record — in particular, a 15-year-old felony conviction for a nonviolent crime.
What she failed to mention is that, according to Minnesota law, people with criminal records have the right to clear those charges to become foster care placements. While I worked to clear my name, I found family members to care for my granddaughter in my place. All of them were good people, safe people, people with enough resources to provide adequate care. The social worker denied placement with them anyway, sending my granddaughter to a stranger’s home instead.
The final hearing of my granddaughter’s case made all the hard work and heartbreak worth it. After she was finally placed with me (something that should have happened years earlier), a judge finalized her adoption, saying that I was the best person to care for my granddaughter because I “deeply love” her and have a “strong bond and secure attachment” with her.
If it weren’t for ICWA, which prioritizes placement of Native children with extended family, I may never have gotten her back. I am continuing to nurture my granddaughter and strengthening our forever bond. Without it, another family would have loved her I’m sure, but she would’ve been an outsider in their community, without connections to her culture, her identity, and her family. Today, she is proud of who she is, and she is where she is supposed to be. Child welfare groups call ICWA a “gold standard” because of the proven benefits of those connections, and states across the country — including Minnesota — have passed state-level laws to enshrine and expand upon its federal success.
That is why ICWA is so important to me, and it’s why I’m now taking on another fight — this time, not for my granddaughter, but for the legislation that brought her home to me and for the other children who it brought closer to their families and tribal communities.
Last November, the Supreme Court heard Brackeen v. Haaland. A decision could come at any time, and will soon decide the future of ICWA in America. The plaintiffs in the case include the same family who challenged my own custody — a family who I know has only love in their hearts for my grandchild but were part of a system that would have failed to honor her family connections.
If the court rules the law unconstitutional, it will not only prevent family reunifications like my own — it will tell tribes that we do not have a right to our own children, and that our political sovereignty which Congress has recognized for centuries is no more. For all of us, this should be a terrifying notion. But for me, just as tragic would be the grandmothers and grandchildren who couldn’t tell stories like my own.