Read Installment III of Our NICWA Series

The forceful imposition of Western ideologies, practices and  beliefs on indigenous communities have historically stripped them from their families, communities and culture. This heinous, 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 culture. In this series, we engage in critical conversations with Dr. Sarah Kastelic (Alutiiq), Executive Director of the National Indian Child Welfare Association (NICWA), to highlight the struggles of American Indian and Alaska Native (AI/AN) tribal communities, and what we can learn from these very communities to reorient the child welfare system. 

Installment III with Dr. Sarah Kastelic, Executive Director at NICWA

Bigger Than Black and White

The country’s civil unrest around the historical racial oppression and injustices African-Americans continue to face has catalyzed conversations about how other nonwhite groups have also endured racial injustice in America. More specifically, Native communities are left to question whether or not they will be included in these conversations given the heinous acts of racism and present racial oppression they have had to endure in this country. Further, the issue of race for American Indian and Alaska Native (AI/AN) people has created legal barriers for children and families and continues to perpetuate their separation from family and culture – despite laws like ICWA.  

Dr. Kastelic explains, “Although AI/AN is a racial category in the census, for example, we’re fighting a battle that important laws like ICWA are based on race. When in fact, of course, ICWA is all about citizenship. It’s all about the relationship of a child to their tribe and the responsibility of that tribe to care for and ensure the best interest of that child.”

As protests continue throughout the country, indigenous communities are standing in solidarity and joining in on the fight for racial justice.

“On the one hand, as I look at demonstrations and protests and the organizing that’s happening around the country, in many places, including here in Portland where I live, indigenous people are a big part of those demonstrations and that organizing. We are standing in solidarity,” Dr. Kastelic says.

Source: Kerem Yucel via Getty Images
Native Americans pray to call for justice during a demonstration over the killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis.

“On the other hand, there’s a tension around to what extent do we identify as ‘race’ versus claiming that citizenship? I think, absolutely, we perceive the inequitable treatment that we experience as racism and feel compelled to speak out about that.”

Native communities are also faced with continued systemic racism resulting in poverty, health disparities and even police brutality. Yet, these struggles are less known to the general public.”

Bringing to light the struggles of Native communities is critical as much of their fight against racism is embedded in their right to claim citizenship and ownership over the land historically stewarded by their Indigenous predecessors. Historically, systemic racist practices were enforced through federal policies in the ’50s and ’60s and worked to remove Native people from their reservations. This practice was heavily marketed to do so.

“The federal government thought part of the way to deal with the ‘Indian problem’ is to get Indians into urban areas and assimilated into mainstream culture,” Dr. Kastelic explained. “So, native people were promised jobs, housing, support and moved in large numbers from reservations to urban areas and kind of left there with no support system or services. But, because of that, we made our own family there. There are some really strong urban communities and strong urban Indian centers that provide a lot of services, and those are really active in many places.”

To better understand some of these issues and advocate for justice in their communities, Dr. Kastelic explains that non-native people can begin by educating themselves about local Native communities.

“I think there are lots of community-based organizations that serve and represent native people” she says. “Learning more about local native populations and experiences of people locally is really important. Even understanding, where are the tribes here? And if there aren’t tribes here now, historically, who were the tribal people that lived here? Because all of this used to be Indian country. How do we help people to identify that? Even before the murder of George Floyd, there were some really positive things happening around the country in terms of Indigenous land acknowledgments.”

I think that’s really powerful to claim, not just the people who are here now, but historically the people who stewarded this land. Such that it’s still here for us to be here today.”

Where Do We Go from Here?

Dismantling racism in child welfare requires change at a systemic level. Working together, we can begin to change the way families are viewed and begin to work toward their well-being by understanding their cultural makeup. This value for culture is one lesson we can take from Indigenous communities to begin this necessary change.

Dr. Kastelic explains, “I think we have a real opportunity now to do child welfare differently. I know there are some people who have a very strong voice who are saying ‘abolish CPS,’ and I’m not there.”

She continues, “I think we need a formal system. I think we need some form of protection for kids and families. But I do think that if we’re really trying to rethink child welfare and how it works, that our country has a lot to learn from Indigenous communities. In many ways, our communities have already decolonized child welfare. We’ve already looked at the system to say, ‘This doesn’t serve kids and families well.’ We know how to do better. Our teachings tell us how to do that. Our relationships with one another tell us how to do that. So, we can reorient the child welfare system.”

In many ways, our communities have already decolonized child welfare. We’ve already looked at the system to say this doesn’t serve kids and families well. We know how to do better. Our teachings tell us how to do that. Our relationships with one another tell us how to do that. So, we can reorient the child welfare system.”

Examples of change are already taking place in communities where these beliefs are understood. Dr. Kastelic highlights the changes being made in her local Oregon community. “Here in Oregon, the Confederate Tribes of Umatilla, we’re experiencing real change,” she begins. “The foster care rates have dramatically decreased. Kids aren’t getting removed from their homes, and one of the major expenditures for the child welfare program is coffee. Because, at 10 o’clock every morning during the week, elders and community members are there in the child welfare program visiting. Parents are dropping in. They’re talking with people about ‘how do I deal with this teacher who’s not treating my kids well?’ Child welfare isn’t seen as ‘the people who take kids.’ They approach family challenges by normalizing having trouble parenting. Because parenting is hard.

“So, how do we wrap-around kids and families in a way that keep them safe?” she continues. “How do we offer resources? How do we support parents when they’re stressed? How do we help kids make sense of some of the challenges that their families are facing? How do we help them to learn how to navigate racism and discrimination, which they certainly experience? If we change the way that we use funding, if we intervene much earlier, if we don’t wait for bruises or abandonment…when you reorient the child welfare system in a way that’s really about recognizing the humanity of families, recognizing that parenting is hard, recognizing that we all need support and help with parenting sometimes, that that’s just the norm, and then provide a space for those things to happen, then we don’t ever have to get to the point where there are bruises or abandonment. Or, at least, [it will] happen far less regularly because people step in long before then.”

The emphasis placed on the humanity of parenting will allow families to seek the help they may need without judgement or shame. However, this belief can only be shared once racial barriers are broken down to see all families as unique, and this change must happen in all systems that continue to oppress communities of color and limit their access to equitable opportunities to ensure their families thrive in this country.  

This article originally appeared in our monthly newsletter, the National Kinship Review. Sign up today!

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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