The Reaffirmation of ICWA: Reaffirming Native Cultural Identities and Family Structure

During November, we celebrate National American Indian Heritage Month by respecting the distinctive and divergent histories of American Indians and Alaskan Natives (AI/AN). While we celebrate their rich histories, we must also grapple with the dark histories of the institutions that have stripped Native children and families from their cultures and identities. This historical practice of separation has been deeply embedded in the American child welfare system and continues to deprive Native communities of their family rights and connection to their cultures.

With the reaffirmation of ICWA earlier this year, and the recent publishing of the new kinship rule by the U.S. Administration for Children and Families, we have seen the critical prioritization of kinship care on the federal level that ultimately support Black, Brown, and Indigenous families. These significant legislative implications support the healing of Native tribal communities and families through the reinforcement of keeping kin together to maintain their cultural identities. However, we recognize that there remains more work to be done.

ASCI engaged in a critical conversation with Mikah Carlos, Youth Representative at NICWA, to highlight these recent legislative strides and their impact on American Indian and Alaska Native (AI/AN) children and families.

Mikah Carlos: I think it’s always most important to try to give them access, first and foremost, to their communities, and I know that’s not always a possibility. The next best option is always making sure that any information provided to them is factual. It’s so important to get them connected to their cultures versus a pen-indigenous approach. If they’re Pima-Maricopa, we want to make sure that they have access to Pima-Maricopa material, including the languages & stories. I think that’s sometimes hard especially when you’re working with families who may be new to understanding what Indigenous culture is. Sometimes there’s a belief that we’re all the same but the reality is that each tribe is unique. Even if we’re very closely related to each other, we’re still unique in what we do, what we practice, our languages, our dances, and our songs. I think the first thing to do is to give them access and give them the correct information. That way, they know who they are, and it’s coming from a reliable source.

MC: I think when we talk about barriers, we know that there’s a lack of certified foster homes in Indigenous communities, and that’s where kinship care comes into play. There are different rule sets that allow them to be placed in those homes. I think there’s also the lack of access to culturally relevant care including mental and physical health as well as access to participating in their culture. Sometimes we know that when youth are placed into foster care, even kinship care, that can mean that they’re not in their communities anymore. That’s always going to be a barrier if that’s the case for them. So, working around that and trying to get them access to information is really important in order to connect them to people from the same tribe who they can see as mentors or see themselves in. I think that’s one of the ways that you work around it.

When we talk about barriers they might face, there’s so many things that might have gotten them into the situation and most of the time it’s nothing of their choosing. Somehow something happened to them in order to be removed from their home and placed somewhere else for their safety and well-being. Usually, most of the time, it’s traumatic things that have happened to them, so we always want to make sure that they have access to adequate mental health resources.

Coming out of the pandemic, we’ve seen just how overburdened mental health resources are, so it’s always important that they get connected culturally. We’ve seen cultural connectivity as a barrier sometimes, especially if they’re in a rural community. Maybe they don’t have access to resources as easily as somebody else might, and trying to bridge those gaps is important for the work that we do to make sure that people have adequate resources.

MC: It’s important to recognize how unique every Indigenous community is. What one may consider a community, might not be the same definition as the neighboring community and vice versa. I think the underlying thought within indigenous communities is that we’re all responsible for the children. We’re all responsible for making sure that they’re safe and that they’re raised with the values that our people see as important. What my culture, Onk Akimel O’odham (Pima) and Xalychidom Piipaash (Maricopa), sees as important includes being raised as humble, being hard-working people, and caring about others. Other cultures’ morals might be a little bit different.

My people aren’t a warrior society. We have warriors, but our main things are farming and agriculture. We’re known as very peaceful people. That doesn’t mean that somebody who has a warrior culture or warrior society is any less or any more important than us. It simply means that their value systems are different. Each Indigenous community has that background or understands what values are important to their people. That’s how you build these communities. When we have a greater understanding of that, we’re able to actually build upon those things.

MC: As amazing as it was that the Supreme Court reaffirmed ICWA, we know that there’s always going to be challenges to it. One of the things that we started looking at is how do we reaffirm this? How do we solidify that ICWA is the gold standard of care? I know I’ve seen a couple of states that have started moving towards State ICWA laws, but the thing that I’ve noticed that’s most important, and I think is key to the work that’s being done, is a lot of that work is being driven by direct consultation with the tribes. I think no matter what path, if the states or counties want to move forward, it’s always important to have the consultation of the tribes because again, we’re each unique.

Within the State of Arizona, we have 22 federally recognized tribes. What Salt River might need is different than what our sister tribe, Gila River, might need. Both could be vastly different than the Navajo Nation or the Apache tribes. It’s vital to have consultation from tribes, to ensure best practices are implemented. We know ICWA is the gold standard, but that also looks different for the resources that are needed in our communities. It’s a big part of making sure that that need is addressed when states are moving forward to support ICWA and support tribes. We always need support. We always need allies. It can be tiring doing a lot of this education for non-indigenous people and people who don’t work in Indian country. It’s amazing when our allies take up some of that burden of education of having to explain why this is so important.

“We don’t need spokespeople, but we do need people who are willing to listen to others who don’t look like us. We always need people in our corner who have the best interest of the tribes and keeping our children in mind, but are also willing to do that work alongside us.”

We must keep this in mind as we move forward. There’s always going to be things about Indian country. Because so much of it is political in nature – and because we are political in nature – those spokespersons must get accurate information and they must support us in the best way possible. They can even reach out to the tribes in the communities and ask, “How can we support you?”

MC: ICWA has shown time and time again that children do best when they’re placed within their communities, or they’re placed within native families. Specifically, going back to that first rule set with their families, that’s kinship. I think it’s central to understand that giving tribes the right to decide who is kinship, is very important in acknowledging their sovereignty, but also the indigenous values that they play. For example, with me being an auntie to my friends’ kids, even though we might not have any direct bloodline, I’m considered their “vemkika,” what you would call their immediate family. In the eyes of the state, I might not be considered family, but in the eyes of the community, they’ve given me that role.

When kinship comes into play, that’s important because if there’s a safe person that is considered family, we want those kids to go to that family because again, I care just as much about those kids and their well-being as their biological mother. I think having that title allows tribes to implement that and move forward to maintain that.

When ICWA is followed, what we know is that Indian children benefit from that. When they benefit, the whole community benefits. It’s a ripple effect. We’re seeing this reaffirmation of what the indigenous family structure looks like… it’s not always nuclear and the more people that we can have to support these kids and these children the better.

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The opinions expressed are solely those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of A Second Chance, Inc.

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