On Thursday, June 15, the American Indian College Fund greeted the announcement of the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision in Haaland v. Brackeen with joy and relief. This victory resonates throughout Indian Country and among Native people and their allies as a necessary recognition of the longstanding tenet of federal Constitutional law that recognizes Indigenous tribes as sovereign nations and their nation-to-nation relationship with the U.S. federal government. The Indian Child Welfare Act is the gold standard for child welfare in Indian Country.
As President of the College Fund and a lifelong educator, I reflected on the establishment of Tribal Colleges and Universities and the tribally controlled education movement by Native nations as a response to the devastating impact of many of the policies and strategies outlined by Justice Neil Gorsuch in his concurring opinion. While the opinion of the Supreme Court upholds the constitutionality of the Indian Child Welfare Act, it was Justice Gorsuch’s concurring opinion that brought clarity to what was at stake—the very right of Indigenous people to raise our own children in our own families and communities as Indigenous people.
As Justice Gorsuch shares in the last paragraph of his opinion:
“Often, Native American Tribes have come to this Court seeking justice only to leave with bowed heads and empty hands. But that is not because this Court has no justice to offer them. Our Constitution reserves for the Tribes a place—an enduring place—in the structure of American life. It promises them sovereignty for as long as they wish to keep it. And it secures that promise by divesting States of authority over Indian affairs and by giving the federal government certain significant (but limited and enumerated) powers aimed at building a lasting peace. In adopting the Indian Child Welfare Act, Congress exercised that lawful authority to secure the right of Indian parents to raise their families as they please; the right of Indian children to grow in their culture; and the right of Indian communities to resist fading into the twilight of history. All of that is in keeping with the Constitution’s original design.”
ICWA legislation resulted from centuries of individual and government attempts to remove Native children from their families and to eliminate Native cultures through boarding schools and adoptions to non-Native families. Today’s decision will help ensure that Native children are able to grow up within, or are connected to, their community for the best possible outcomes in their lives—while underscoring that the Tribes, and not the states, have the legal right to decide what is best for Native children.
Just as the Tribal right to establish tribal colleges and universities on Native lands is an example of sovereignty, so too is the ability of Tribes to advocate and intervene in state foster care and adoptive cases when it comes to their juvenile citizens. Tribal sovereignty and the government-to-government relationship with the federal government impacts nearly every aspect of a Native person’s life.
The College Fund applauds the Court’s decision but recognizes this is merely one victory and a small step towards healing the generational trauma caused by previous government-sanctioned mistreatment of Native children.
The coming together of Native nations, organizations, and allies across the country made this victory possible today and is proof that together we can create a healthy, culturally grounded, and prosperous future for all Native peoples.