Supreme Court Rules in Favor of Preserving Tribal Families and Sovereignty

Native families, communities and cultures will continue to be prioritized for the placement of Tribal children in foster care following a major Supreme Court decision in June.

The nine justices issued the ruling, 7-2, in favor of upholding the Indian Child Welfare Act (ICWA). The case challenging ICWA had come from a family in Texas who claimed the law was unconstitutional and discriminatory based on race. However, the majority of the justices agreed that though complicated, the challenge to the case was without merit or standing.

“The Supreme Court gave our children and Tribes a huge victory today when they upheld the Indian Child Welfare Act,” said Carla Keene, Chairman of the Cow Creek Band of Umpqua Tribe of Indians, upon learning of the decision. “It is a victory for our sovereign rights, our cultures, and traditions.”

Federally recognized Tribal governments have argued that by challenging ICWA, the basic principles of Tribal sovereignty were at risk. ICWA was implemented in 1978 when for many years, Native American children were removed from Tribes, often extinguishing connections to the culture they were born into.

“Our Nation’s painful history looms large over today’s decision,” President Joe Biden said in a statement. “In the not-so-distant past, Native children were stolen from the arms of the people who loved them. They were sent to boarding schools or to be raised by non-Indian families – all with the aim of erasing who they are as Native people and tribal citizens. These were acts of unspeakable cruelty that affected generations of Native children and threatened the very survival of Tribal Nations. The Indian Child Welfare Act was our Nation’s promise: never again.”

The history of the case centers on a white family from Texas who sought to adopt a sibling of a Navajo child already in their custody. However, a family member within the Tribe had stepped forward to raise the child, thus setting off the years-long court case.

Siding in favor of upholding ICWA were Justices Amy Coney Barrett, who wrote the majority opinion, as well as Chief Justice John Roberts, Justices Sonia Sotomayor, Elena Kagan, Kentaji Brown Jackson, Brett Kavanaugh, and Neil Gorsuch.

“Our Constitution reserves for the Tribes a place – an enduring place – in the structure of American life. It promises them sovereignty for as long as they wish to keep it,” Justice Gorsuch wrote in a concurring opinion.