George F. Will writes a twice-weekly column on politics and domestic and foreign affairs. He began his column with The Post in 1974, and he received the Pulitzer Prize for Commentary in 1977. He is also a contributor to FOX News’ daytime and primetime programming.View Archive
Sordid, always. And sometimes lethal, as some Native American children could attest, were they not, like Declan Stewart and Laurynn Whiteshield, dead. They were victims of the Indian Child Welfare Act (ICWA), which as construed and applied demonstrates how identity politics can leave a trail of broken bodies and broken hearts.
The 1978 act’s advocates say it is not about race but about the rights of sovereign tribes, as though that distinction is meaningful. The act empowers tribes to abort adoption proceedings, or even take children from foster homes, solely because the children have even a minuscule quantum of American Indian blood. Although, remember, this act is supposedly not about race.
Children’s welfare, which is paramount under all 50 states’ laws, is sacrificed to abstractions such as tribal “integrity” or “coherence.” The Goldwater litigators say that guidelines from the U.S. Bureau of Indian Affairs tell courts that in determining foster care or adoption, “Placement in an Indian home is presumed to be in the child’s best interest.” The ICWA forbids blocking placement in an Indian home because of poverty, substance abuse or “nonconforming social behavior,” according to a Goldwater report.
The ICWA was passed to prevent a real abuse, the taking of Indian children from their homes without justifiable cause. But by protecting tribal sovereignty without stipulating the primary importance of protecting the best interests of the children, the rights of the tribes have essentially erased those of the children and the parents who wish to adopt them.
Declan Stewart was 5 when he was beaten to death by his mother’s live-in boyfriend. Declan had been removed from her custody by Oklahoma state officials in 2006, after his skull had been fractured and he received severe bruising between his testicles and rectum. But when the Cherokee Nation objected to his removal, Oklahoma, knowing how the ICWA favors tribal rights, relented. Declan was killed a month after being returned to his mother.
From age 9 months until she was almost 3, Laurynn Whiteshield and her twin sister were in the foster care of Jeanine Kersey-Russell, a Methodist minister in Bismarck, N.D. But when Kersey-Russell tried to terminate the twins’ parents’ rights in order to adopt them, the Spirit Lake Sioux tribe invoked the ICWA and the children were sent to the reservation and the custody of their grandfather. Thirty-seven days later, Laurynn died after being thrown down an embankment by her grandfather’s wife, who had a record of neglecting, endangering and abusing her own children. Laurynn’s sister was returned to Kersey-Russell.
Laura and Pete Lupo of Lynden, Wash., raised Elle, who was less than 2 percent Cherokee and who came to them at age 14 months from a mother who was a drug addict and a father who was in prison. When Elle was 3, her uncle objected to the Lupos adopting her, and she was given to him.
By treating children, however attenuated or imaginary their Indian ancestry, as little trophies for tribal power, the ICWA discourages adoptions by parents who see only children, not pawns of identity politics. The Goldwater Institute hopes to establish the right of Indian children to be treated as all other children are, rather than as subordinate to tribal rights.
The most pernicious idea ever in general circulation in the United States is the “one-drop rule,” according to which persons whose ancestry includes any black or Indian admixture are assigned a black or Indian identity. In final adoption hearings in Arizona, a judge asks, “Does this child contain any Native American blood?” It is revolting that judicial proceedings in the United States can turn on questions about group rights deriving from “blood.”
It has been a protracted, serpentine path from Plessy v. Ferguson (1896) and “separate but equal” to today’s racial preferences. The nation still is stained by the sordid business of assigning group identities and rights. This is discordant with the inherent individualism of the nation’s foundational natural rights tradition, which is incompatible with the ICWA. It should be overturned or revised before more bodies and hearts are broken.
The Indian Child Welfare Act, passed in 1978, has saved and elevated the lives of all children of the first Americans. Before the act, which was recently strengthened by the Obama administration, Indian children were removed from their tribal nations, communities and families.
Bolstering accountability of the U.S. justice system and providing regulations for its interaction with Indian child-welfare cases secures the safety, health and well-being of Indian children and their tribal nations. The act is a public-health policy that prompts prevention-based measures to restore wellness for Indian children and their families. A sharp focus on the legal status of native children as citizens of self-determining tribal nations is fundamental. Indian children possess an inherent political status that predates the United States, a reality supported by centuries of U.S. law and policy.
Misguided attempts to erode the power of the act are based on a colonial mind-set that tribal nations are inferior, suggesting that non-native families are better able to care for native children.
For thousands of years, tribal nations have developed community environments that promote healthy and happy lives for their children. These are the identity-building systems and opportunities that native children need to thrive.
The Indian Child Welfare Act is a smart, problem-solving policy that will spark native children to lead the full and meaningful lives they deserve.
Joaquin Gallegos, Denver
The writer is a research assistant at the Centers for American Indian and Alaska Native Health at the University of Colorado.
A Princeton PhD, was a U.S. diplomat for over 20 years, mostly in Central/Eastern Europe, and was promoted to the Senior Foreign Service in 1997. After leaving the State Department in order to express opposition to the planned invasion of Iraq, he taught courses at Georgetown University pertaining to the tension between propaganda and public diplomacy. For many years he shared ideas on the theme "E Pluribus Unum? What Keeps the United States United" with Eurasian/European delegates participating in the "Open World" program.
Brown’s articles have appeared in numerous publications. A recent piece is “Janus-Faced Public Diplomacy: Creel and Lippmann During the Great War” (published in Nontraditional U.S. Public Diplomacy: Past, Present, and Future; now online).
He is the author (with S. Grant) of The Russian Empire and the USSR: A Guide to Manuscripts and Archival Materials in the United States (also online). In the past century, he served as an editor/translator of a joint U.S.-Soviet publication, The Establishment of Russian-American Relations, 1765-1815.