OPINION: Sovereign rights at stake in ICWA case

BY BILL JOHN BAKER
Former Principal Chief
03/15/2019 12:00 PM
Native children are removed from their homes at a higher rate than most of their peers. Nonetheless, in the recent Texas v. Bernhardt case, U.S. District Judge Reed O’Connor ruled that the Indian Child Welfare Act is unconstitutional because it is race based. The ruling stated that ICWA was unenforceable.

Sadly, this is a blatant attempt to once again strike tribes in our most vulnerable but most vital area by misleading the public about the purpose of this important Federal Act. In reality, ICWA has nothing to do with race but rather was enacted to preserve Native families, protect the unique citizenship rights of Native children and defend the sovereignty of tribal governments. I pray we prevail in the appeal of this legal obstacle course because there is so much at stake.

Aside from the statistics in relation to the removal of Native children, there is a fundamental disconnect when it comes to the rights of Native children to maintain their connection to their family, their tribe and all that their tribe has to offer.

The violation of ICWA for any reason not only harms the children’s connection with their tribal government but is also detrimental to future generations of Cherokee children. Time and time again, the deep-pocketed entities opposing ICWA cry out discrimination, but in all cases involving the removal of Native children, the bottom line is about human rights. Native children have the inherent right to remain with their family, and all that his or her tribe has to offer.

As we have seen through centuries of broken treaties, our sovereignty as a tribal nation is all too often ignored, the rights of our citizens trampled, compromising our very existence as a tribe. The breach of ICWA in the Texas v. Bernhardt decision is no different. It targets the very lifeline of tribes: our children.

Somehow, it’s very ironic that those afforded “white privilege” are the first ones to cry discrimination in this case and others involving ICWA. It’s become an all-too-familiar ploy when a dominant force attempts to control a population.

Even if you cannot take on the responsibility of raising a child, there are always other ways to help. One of the most impactful roles you can take is to be a vocal advocate. Cherokee voices must be heard loud and clear: our children are our hope, our strength and our future. They are not for the taking.

We need all tribal people to stand strong and stand up for our Native children and do it now before the entire ICWA is dismantled. We must be the children’s voices where they have none. Those Cherokees who have gone on before us are counting on you and me to deliver our sacred promise to the next seven generations. Do not let this generation or the next slip through the cracks.

I vow, as the Principal Chief of Cherokee Nation, that we will continue to devote the necessary resources to defending this most important law, and we will continue to be a leader in Indian Country, fighting for our children to remain with their families and their tribe.

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