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Indigenous leaders urge Utah to pass a state Indian Child Welfare Act

2023 Utah Legislative Session, Utah State Capitol, tribal leaders at the capitol in support of
Andrew Christiansen
Members of Utah's eight federally recognized tribes gathered at the state capitol on Jan. 31, 2023, in support of a state bill that would prioritize placing Indigenous children with biological family members instead of referring them to adoptive and foster homes.

Indigenous members of Utah’s eight federally recognized tribes gathered at the state capitol Tuesday to try to dislodge a bill that’s held up in the House Judiciary Committee.

HB40 would codify into Utah law provisions of the federal Indian Child Welfare Act, which offers protections for Indigenous children going through adoption or foster care. The federal law was in response to the systematic removal of Native American children from homes, often without cause.

The ICWA prioritizes placing Native American children with biological family members instead of referring them to adoptive and foster homes. The U.S. Supreme Court heard arguments on a challenge to the law in November. As the Associated Press reports, opponents say the law is impermissibly based on race and prevents states from considering a child’s best interest.

Regardless of the high court’s decision, Rep. Christine Watkins, the Republican bill sponsor, said a state law “ensures Utah is well positioned to continue our coordinated statewide efforts between Utah's tribal governments and other critical stakeholders to provide care, protection and promotion of cultural connection for all American Indian children and their families.”

Manuel Hart, chairman of the Ute Mountain Ute Tribe, called it a prime example of protecting diverse cultures and traditions.

“Let us give [children] the right to exercise their inherent right to learn their language, their culture, and their traditions,” he said.

The issue, and the right to protect Indigenous culture, resonates with Navajo Nation Council Delegate Rickie Nez. He recounted his time at a residential boarding school and the punishment he received for expressing his Native culture.

“I know what a bar [of] soap tastes like,” he said. “I also know … the bruises on my hands from a wooden ruler to keep me from speaking my Diné language.”

Those memories of being forcibly removed from sovereign land and placed in a boarding school stuck with Nez. It served as a reminder to teach his children to speak the Navajo language.

While Nez’s children remain close, other tribal leaders weren’t granted that opportunity. Hope Jackson, a council member for The Confederated Tribes of Goshute, said a cousin she used to play with often as a child was suddenly gone.

“Come to find out that the state had come and took five of the family members,” she said. “Today, one of them has come home.”

Her cousin is open about the experience of being adopted by a non-Native family, she said. And added her cousin feels “lost” at home because she doesn’t speak the Shoshoni language and isn’t fully versed in the traditions and culture.

But most importantly, Jackson said her cousin speaks about “the loss of her sisters” who she will likely never see again because they were all adopted.

“Those things are the things that we don't want our children to go through,” Jackson said.

Nizhoni Guthrie, a 22-year-old Navajo and Osage Utahn, was in attendance because some of her family members, including her grandpa, have lived experiences with displacement.

“I feel like I'm deep-rooted in my tribe and my culture,” she said. “I am very privileged to say that as a city native, I know a lot about myself and I'm very lucky that my family has taught me my culture.”

As of 2019, 56% of adopted Native children lived with families outside of their communities, according to the National Indian Child Welfare Association. Nationwide, American Indian and Alaska Native children are overrepresented in state foster care at a rate nearly three times greater than their proportion to the general population.

Watkins said stakeholders have been working on this legislation for “a very long time” and felt confident introducing it during the session. The bill has the support of Gov. Spencer Cox, Lt. Gov. Deidre Henderson, Attorney General Sean Reyes and Utah’s Native American Legislative Liaison Committee, among others.

“At its core, ICWA keeps Native American children with Native American families and recognizes the Constitutional sovereignty of Utah’s eight federally recognized tribal nations,” Henderson said in a statement.

Even with unified support from executive and Indigenous leaders, some lawmakers were hesitant to pass the legislation out of committee.

Rep. Nelson Abbott, R-Orem, had concerns over language, most notably definitions related to child placement with extended family members. He said it would be “difficult” for a state court to understand placement standards with families who “maintain social and cultural ties” to Indian Country. He requested the bill sponsor make definition standards clear “rather than just saying we're going to refer to federal law.”

Rep. Karianne Lisonbee, R-Clearfield, said she’d rather vote on the bill once a Supreme Court decision has been reached.

“I'm concerned that we might be preemptively making a decision that has implications we don't quite understand in Utah,” she said.

While she said was “sympathetic,” at the end of the hearing Rep. Kera Birkeland, R-Morgan, motioned to hold the legislation until concerns could be addressed because “it's better to get things right out the gate.”

The vote was 7-5 to table the legislation, and the chair agreed to place it on a future agenda. Another hearing date has yet to be set, but Hart urged lawmakers to prioritize it as soon as Friday, Feb. 3.

Corrina Bow, chairwoman for the Paiute Tribe, was critical of lawmakers tabling the bill.

“Am I wrong to think that the representatives for Utah represent all of us, all of our people?” she said. “To table HB40 on a minor technicality — knowing that this is this bill is so important to all of our eight sovereign nations of Utah — is injustice.”

Saige is a politics reporter and co-host of KUER's State Street politics podcast
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