The Indian Child Welfare Act is a first step to repairing the centuries of harm done by the United States government and Christian churches.
Jane Ross Richer and her family have served with Mennonite Mission Network in two-way mission since 2015. For six months each year, they live among some of Ecuador's Indigenous Peoples. For the remaining six months, they minister in the United States, teaching and speaking in congregations about what they have learned from the people of Ecuador. Awareness of injustices inflicted upon the Indigenous Peoples in Ecuador have made the Ross Richers more passionate about repairing injustice in their passport country, the United States. For the past year, the Ross Richers have worked closely with Sarah Augustine,
a Pueblo (Tewa) descendant. She is also the co-founder and executive director of the
Coalition to Dismantle the Doctrine of Discovery and a
Mission Network board member. She also
and advocates for Indigenous
Peoples through many international organizations, such as the United Nations and the World Health Organization.
Ross Richer works with Augustine to preserve the
Indian Child Welfare Act (ICWA). Ross Richer
wrote this story in response to the
Brackeen v. Haaland case which
is currently awaiting a
Supreme Court decision.
In 2018, a Navajo baby, YRJ, was born to parents who were deemed unfit to care for her. When she was only an infant, her great-aunt, who lived on a Navajo reservation, offered to care for her. The adoptive family of YRJ's half-brother also wished for YRJ to become part of their family. So, a Texas judge was put in charge of deciding where YRJ would live.
The judge decided that YRJ would be better cared for in the Anglo-American foster home of Chad and Jennifer Brackeen. But the judge acknowledged the importance of YRJ's Navajo identity and said that YRJ was to have extended visits on the Navajo Nation reservation every summer. The Brackeens refused this condition. Neither the Navajo great-aunt, nor the Brackeens were happy with the judge's decision and requested a new decision. Not surprisingly, the White professional family with good paying jobs, as well as friends with large salaries and access to power, were given their wish — full custody of YRJ, with no extended visits to the Navajo reservation.
Four years later, the Brackeens were outraged to learn that a Navajo family wanted to adopt YRJ. They appealed to the Supreme Court on the grounds that the decision to allow a Navajo family to adopt YRJ was based on race.
Chad Brackeen said that if YRJ was taken from them, it "would be an earthquake for our family."
I know many Indigenous families who have had to brave earthquakes like the one Chad Brackeen describes.
There was once a Pueblo girl whose mother and father were deemed unfit to care for her, because they were Indian. And so, she was taken away — an earthquake for that family.
There was once a Tuscarora boy whose mother and father were deemed unfit to care for him, because they were Indian. And so, he was taken away — an earthquake for that family.
There was once an Abenaki girl whose mother and father were deemed unfit to care for her, because they were Indian. And so, she was taken away — an earthquake for that family.
There was once a Potawatomi boy whose mother and father were deemed unfit to care for him, because they were Indian. And so, he was taken away — an earthquake for that family.
At the dawn of the United States, Indigenous families began to experience their first earthquakes, as White settlers of Christian ancestry began establishing American values. From sea to shining sea, land was snatched away from Indigenous families. They were forced to move out of the way. They walked for months — even children and elders — often without food, water and shelter. Many people died along the way.
Later, Indigenous children were stolen from their families and forced to attend boarding schools. There, White settlers tried to kill Indigenous languages, cultures and traditions by replacing them with "Christian" practices and beliefs.
The United States government gave Indigenous people land, where the rains did not come often. There was no corn or rice, buffalo or deer, so they had little to eat. Everyone was hungry, but they could not go home again. They had to live where the U. S, government said. They had to give up their children when the U. S. Government said. This went on year after year after year.
Because there was little food, parents didn't have enough to feed their children. The U. S. government said that this was proof that Indigenous Peoples were unfit to raise their own kids.
If YRJ being removed from the Brackeen family is an earthquake, what is it when thousands of children are taken from thousands of families for centuries? It could be described as earthquake upon earthquake upon earthquake.
Finally, the Indigenous Peoples came to the U.S. government and said, "Let our children go."
The U. S. government said, "No."
This plea, "Let our children go," was issued many times, but the U.S. government always said, "No."
Finally in 1978, the government changed their response and wrote the Indian Child Welfare Act (ICWA). This law made it harder to remove Indigenous children from their families and communities. Indigenous Peoples had some relief from the earthquakes.
Now, ICWA is being challenged in court.
Sarah Augustine (front left) participates with the Goshen College community in support of ICWA on Nov. 9, 2022. Photographer: Lynda Hollinger-Janzen
Think of ICWA as an earthquake-resistant building. ICWA helps to create flexible foundations for children within their communities. It builds in shock absorbers, like culture, language and spiritual practices. And ICWA shields families from negative outside forces that threaten to separate them.
Earthquakes are dangerous. They have caused crushing blows to Native America communities for centuries. It can take a long time to put things back together after an earthquake. ICWA is one way to protect Indigenous families from the impacts of the systemic removal of children from their homes and nations.
Jennifer Brackeen said that it would be inhumane and cruel to remove YRJ from her home. I would agree; it is inhumane and cruel to take children away from the people with whom they have bonded. It is easy to get distracted from the painful reality of how the oppressive systems involved in this case impact Indigenous Peoples.
I have never heard anyone suggest that it would be a good idea intentionally create a second earthquake to help the survivors of the first earthquake clean up the damage that was caused! Why, then, is it common practice to intentionally remove Indigenous children from their communities, to repair the damage done by centuries of this very practice?
As followers of Jesus, I believe we are called to stand in support of ICWA.