The battle to keep indigenous children, north and south of the Mexico-U.S. border, with their families now plays out fairly regularly in the U.S. media. But, it’s not new news. Indigenous children have been stripped from their families for decades in the United States.
In 1978, the federal government recognized an alarmingly high rate of Indian children removed from their homes compared to white children resulting in the creation of the Indian Child Welfare Act.
Forty years later, a wealthy, white Evangelical Christian family threatened to uproot the law after winning a custody battle over a 3-year-old boy whose biological mother is Navajo and bio father Cherokee. A federal judge in Texas awarded Chad and Jennifer Brackeen custody of the boy. Not satisfied with the win and afraid they may possibly lose custody in the future, the Brackeen family led a charge to declare the Indian Child Welfare Act, or ICWA, unconstitutional. On Aug. 9, a federal appeals court upheld the constitutionality of the act.
The appeals court ruling affects the children of 573 tribes, including children in Texas which was historically occupied by tribes such as the Apache, Kiowa and Comanche. Alex Kim, a family court judge in Texas felt that once the boy’s mother left the Navajo Reservation she lost a connection to her people. In a New York Times article, Kim said his Korean-born grandfather and father understood they and their children would lose part of their heritage by moving to the United states: “But that’s part of the decision we make to immigrate to other cultures and countries.”
As indigenous peoples of the Americas, we didn’t move to another country. We lost our traditional territories to white immigrants, land grabs and squatters. As part of our forced assimilation, many of our children were sent off to Christian-based boarding schools or put up for adoption. As late as the 1960s, upwards of one-third our kids were being taken from Indian homes.
In the 21st century, we are still fighting to protect indigenous children whether it is north or south of the Mexican border. The 5th Circuit Court of Appeals decision to uphold the Indian Child Welfare Act was a critical step to keep our families, communities and identities intact. Now, some legal protections need to be enacted for the indigenous children being stolen at the Mexico border.
Jodi Rave is the founder of the Indigenous Media Freedom Alliance. She is a Nieman journalism fellow of Harvard University.