SCOTUS Indian Child Welfare Act Ruling Reaffirms Indigenous Rights

June 15, 2023
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In a 7-2 ruling, the United States Supreme Court today resoundingly affirmed the constitutionality of the Indian Child Welfare Act (ICWA).

“Today’s ruling protects what Tribes and our families have always known, connection to culture and identity is critical to the health and well-being of our children, families, and communities,” said Valerie Nurr’araluk Davidson, President/CEO of the Alaska Native Tribal Health Consortium. “People will do the most extraordinary things for the right reasons. Children, family, and community are always the right reasons. We celebrate today’s landmark decision as Tribes continue doing the incredible work to ensure services and programs meet the needs of our families.”

The Court clearly upheld Congress’ authority to protect Native children, and the decision demonstrates a strong understanding of the principles of Indian law and the political status of Tribes and Tribal citizens. The majority opinion stated:

“We reject all of petitioners’ challenges to the statute, some on the merits and others for lack of standing.”

This ruling has broader impacts on other federal Indian laws and policies, including Congress’s plenary power to legislate on behalf of Alaska Natives and American Indians in areas such as housing, healthcare, and economic matters. 

This decision is especially important in Alaska, home to 229 federally recognized Tribes and countless Alaska Native entities, all of whom serve Alaska Native children and families. It is an affirmation of the 486 federally recognized American Indian and Alaska Native Tribes and 59 Native organizations that filed an Amicus Brief in support of ICWA.

ICWA has been identified as “the gold standard” of child welfare policy by numerous experts and national leading child advocacy organizations. When Native children maintain connections to their identity and culture, it yields positive outcomes, such as increased self-esteem and academic achievement.

ICWA respects Tribal sovereignty and protects Native children by supporting Native families’ efforts to stay together and keeping our Native children connected with extended families and communities who love them and can help them understand who they are as Native people and Tribal citizens.

Child welfare decisions can shape the entire future of a child and his, her or their family. Congress found ICWA necessary to “. . . protect the best interest of Indian [c]hildren and to promote the stability and security of Indian tribes and families . . .”. The landmark legislation was enacted to prevent the wholesale removal of Indian children from their homes. ICWA provides guidance to states regarding this disposition of child abuse and neglect and adoption cases involving Indian children, including minimum federal standards.

The Alaska Native Tribal Health Consortium (ANTHC), Alaska Native Justice Center, (ANJC), ANCSA Regional Association (ARA), Alaska Native Village Corporation Association (ANVCA), Association of Alaska Housing Authorities (AAHA), and Alaska Federation of Natives (AFN) all are united in celebrating this ruling.

Alex Cleghorn, Chief Operating Officer of the Alaska Native Justice Center said, “This decision rightly recognizes tribal sovereignty and self-determination. It is a major victory for Alaska Tribes, Alaska Native children, families, and the future of Alaska Native culture.”

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