Two Standards: ICWA (Indian Child Welfare Act)

Since I’m Native American, naturally we first considered an American Indian adoption. The Indian Child Welfare Act of 1978 (ICWA) requires efforts first be made to place American Indian children with birth relatives, then with tribal members. To apply with the Native American Adoption Exchange adoptive parents need to provide an enrollment number or certificate of degree of Indian blood. While ICWA is necessary to reduce the movement of Indian children into non-native families, the requirement of enrollment is like having a pedigree and, ironically, another barrier Native American adoptive parents have to face.

And while I believe a person of any race and culture who is willing to make a personal and life-long cultural commitment to Native life ways, can be a good parent to an Indian child, I also believe the ICWA laws are necessary. The kindness, love and ability of many non-Native adoptive parents to parent an Indian child is clear, and yet the custody and upbringing of children is one of the most urgent issues Native Americans have ever faced. Indian children have long been subject to removal from their homes for placement in residential schools and, more recently in foster and adoptive homes. Placement that started in the mid 19th century continues, though less overtly. The result is a metamorphosis of independent people into a largely dependent group.

Both the U.S. and Canadian government reduced Native nations to the legal status of dependent children, and has asserted as surrogate parents over Native children. All Native children in my grandparents generation were forced to attend boarding schools, often far from their homes and were punished for speaking their own language. Most non-Natives do not realize that this practice continued in recent years and that some of those who experienced this treatment are still under retirement age.

One of the articles of faith among adoptive parents is their diversity. Still we are caught in the divide of those adoptive parents who feel parents should be culturally and racially blind, and those who believe we must keep an essential link to racial and cultural identity. In the U.S. large numbers of non-white children are placed with white families. In this setting it is little wonder that race, heritage, culture and ethnicity are often perceived not so much as they are in America, but as they have to be, from a pan-Caucasian point of view.

What is the answer? Like all laws, Social Services also has it problems, loopholes, as well as a long history as a benign metaphor for assimilation. Does it not propagate the dominant culture as normative while silencing the birth culture and the voice of Native America? And while the Indian Child Welfare Act is also not perfect, it has served as a threshold for Indian people—a beginning, a place and a moment for us between here and there. Maya Angelou says it best. “We had come so far from where we started, and weren’t nearly approaching where we had to be, but we’re on the road to becoming better.

First published in Fostering Families Today
© 2002 Terra Trevor. All rights reserved.

  • - Terra Trevor’s ‘Pushing up the Sky’ is a revelation of the struggles and triumphs packed into the hyphens between Korean and Native American and American....
  • Writing, Reading and Living - For me, writing is a way of reaching out to others, to people I don't know. I sit alone, in silence, but all that time I’m out there, connecting with whoe...
  • - Terra Trevor is an essayist, memoirist and nonfiction writer of a diverse body of work. Her stories illuminate our humanity, remind us to be open, to...