Indigenous Utahns relieved after Supreme Court upholds Indian Child Welfare Act
Dominique Talahaftewa, who is Hopi and Ute, was relieved to wake up and see the court's decision. She said she’s seen the negative impacts of not having adoption and foster care protections in place for Native children.
Talahaftewa’s mother was adopted prior to the passing of ICWA, and both she and her siblings were removed from their parents, separated and placed into different homes with white families. Her mother was also sent to boarding school.
“Never had a connection to their culture, or to their family, or to their relatives,” Talahaftewa said.
Talahaftewa said her mother longed to be with her family and with her community, and that her experiences caused a “lifelong disconnection.”
“She’s 67 now and she still feels like she doesn’t have that identity,” Talahaftewa said. “There’s a lot of impact that goes deeper — psychologically, emotionally and even physically — when you don’t have that and when you don’t have a connection to your people. There’s an outcast feeling with your tribal people as you’re older.”
Talahaftewa said her mother’s story is a prime example of what can happen without ICWA protections.
Heather Tanana, a Navajo Nation citizen and research faculty member at the University of Utah’s law school, was both shocked by the court’s decision and ecstatic with the outcome.
Even though the federal act has been upheld, Tanana and Talahaftewa would both like to see Utah pass its own state version of the policy. Tanana said even if Utah just codified into state law the same protections in federal law, that would still feel meaningful.
“For me, it’s showing a commitment of the state to protecting Native children,” Tanana said. “There’s some symbolic nature in there of the state, again, recognizing the importance of this law and showing that they themselves are committed to applying ICWA standards.”
Utah could also add additional protections that are not in the federal law, Tanana said.
“I think Utah still has progress to make in terms of improving its tribal state relations,” Tanana said.
Republican Rep. Christine Watkins sponsored the failed 2023 bill and said she was also excited by the news. However, she does not have any plans to bring the bill up again in the 2024 legislative session. There was a lot of contention over her bill, she said, and since the federal protections are still in place, she plans to leave it alone for at least a year.
“It would take a little bit different makeup of legislators to get this passed,” Watkins said.
It’s possible that another legislator could try running a similar bill, and Tanana is optimistic.
“All of us have been wanting this law to be passed, and it was well before this case was even started. So I think, you know, I'm hopeful it'll still be reintroduced and put in place because that shows a commitment to our tribes,” Tanana said.
Darren Parry, former chairman of the Northwest Band of the Shoshone Nation, is satisfied with the latest outcome and said he wouldn’t push to pass an ICWA bill in Utah.
“Unless the federal court strikes it down in some other way, it would be redundant for the state of Utah to do it,” Parry said. “That's been on the books almost 45 years. If there were gaping holes or problems or things that we needed to address, I think they would have been addressed by now.”
Parry said from talking with people who work with children in foster care or adoption proceedings, the current ICWA system is successful and works well for kids.
In a statement, Lt. Gov. Diedre Henderson also applauded the Supreme Court’s Decision.
“In his concurrence, Supreme Court Justice Neil Gorsuch summed up the importance of ICWA, stating that it “secure[s] the right of Indian parents to raise their families as they please; the right of Indian Children to grow in their culture; and the right of Indian communities to resist fading into the twilight of history. Utah will continue to champion the sovereignty of the eight federally recognized tribes within its borders – and the sovereign rights of their future generations.”
Parry said it’s “a great day to be Indigenous,” especially since Native people haven’t had many victories in the court systems.
“We are celebrating the victory in front of the highest court of the land. They had the ability to take away our children, again, from our people. And they did the right thing,” Parry said. “They ruled in favor of Native Americans and to uphold that law that's worked so well over the years.”
Parry sees the outcome of this case as the federal government keeping some of its promises to Native American people.
“It's good to see, because so many treaties have been broken over the years,” Parry said. “I think they’re finally doing what they said they would do, to let us self-determine ourselves and be a nation that resides within a nation.”