Fawn Sharp, the president of the Quinault Nation, also was optimistic about ICWA's future. But she was troubled by some of the questions posed by the judges on the court, most of whose members do not have a strong background in Indian law and policy. "There still seems to be a very clear lack of understanding of inherent tribal sovereignty," said Sharp, who was recently elected president of the National Congress of American Indians, the largest inter-tribal advocacy organization in the United States. "It exists by virtue of who we are as Indigenous peoples and tribal nations."
"We all lived through a time when tribal children were taken from tribal homes, tribal communities. We don't want to return to that time": Cherokee Nation Chief Chuck Hoskin explains why Indian Child Welfare Act is so important after hearing in #DefendICWA case. @ChuckHoskin_Jr pic.twitter.com/jZRO6CRoup— indianz.com (@indianz) January 22, 2020
Teresa Sanchez, a council member from the Morongo Band of Mission Indians, was bothered by the focus on blood quantum during the hearing, which lasted nearly 90 minutes. More than one judge brought up the issue in connection with a completely different case, one in which opponents of ICWA tried to undermine the law by questioning whether one particular child was, in effect, Indian enough. "An Indian is an Indian is an Indian," said Sanchez. "You can't take that from us. It's inside of us. It's not blood. It's who we are."
"There still seems to be a very clear lack of understanding of inherent tribal sovereignty. It exists by virtue of who we are as Indigenous people": Fawn Sharp, President of Quinault Nation & National Congress of American Indians after hearing in #DefendICWA case. @PresFawnSharp pic.twitter.com/FLSa5SHg74— indianz.com (@indianz) January 22, 2020
Tehassi Hill, the chairman of the Oneida Nation, shared similar sentiments. He said tribes -- as sovereign nations -- decide who belongs to their communities, in the same way the U.S. determines citizenship requirements. "For centuries, Indian children were taken from our homes, stripped of our language and culture," said Hill. "To combat those types of events, Congress I believe did the right thing and passed the Indian Child Welfare Act, so that Indian children can remain with their families and in the community." Together, the Cherokee Nation, the Morongo Band of Mission Indians, the Oneida Nation and the Quinault Nation have been active participants in the closely-watched case. It began in October 2017 the state of Texas and a non-Indian couple sued the federal government, calling ICWA unconstitutional because it takes the "race" of children into account and forces states to adjust their child welfare programs to fulfill the goals of the federal law.
"We need to protect our families, our communities, and most of all, our children": Teresa Sanchez, council member from Morongo Band of Mission Indians, calls Indian Child Welfare Act an important recognition of tribal sovereignty after hearing in #DefendICWA case. @MorongoBand pic.twitter.com/FuLN18aQN3— indianz.com (@indianz) January 22, 2020
By the time a federal judge issued an explosive ruling striking down ICWA a year later, the dispute had grown to include the states of Louisiana and Indiana, as well as additional non-Indian couples, all of whom are trying to adopt Indian children or have already done so. They believe the law stands in their way. But the tribes, along with the Navajo Nation, whose government was eventually allowed to intervene, scored a key victory before the 5th Circuit in 2019. A panel of three judges largely upheld the law in a decision released in August, though one member of the court quibbled with certain provisions directed at state governments. Undaunted, the states and the non-Indian parties asked the 5th Circuit to rehear the case. The request was granted, which resulted in ICWA's fate being placed before a larger en banc panel of judges -- 16 to be exact, following the last-minute recusal of one of the members of the court right before arguments started on Wednesday morning.
"Us being tribes, being sovereign, we have a right to determine our own eligibility. It's up to the tribes to decide": Chairman Tehassi Hill of Oneida Nation says Indian Child Welfare Act recognizes tribal sovereignty after #DefendICWA hearing.@OneidaNationWI pic.twitter.com/qM7hJUszt9— indianz.com (@indianz) January 22, 2020
As a result, the stakes are higher, and even more precarious for tribal interests. The 5th Circuit, though it's home to a number of Indian nations in Louisiana, Texas and Mississippi, does not have a positive record when it comes to Indian law and policy. The court's most recent decisions include ones in which the interests of state governments essentially trumped tribal sovereignty. But whatever the outcome of the en banc proceeding, tribes and their advocates expect an appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court. They know the campaign to defend ICWA is far from over. "We're going to continue to stand by ICWA," Chairman Hill of the Oneida Nation said on the steps of the appeals court on Wednesday. "It's a gold standard for family law and making sure that children are protected, and that tribes have the right to maintain those connections with children."
LISTEN: A federal appeals court just heard arguments in Brackeen v. Bernhardt, a critical Indian Child Welfare Act case, in New Orleans, Louisiana. The outcome will determine whether ICWA can continue to protect tribes and their children. #DefendICWA https://t.co/rlyFbc1V2R— indianz.com (@indianz) January 22, 2020
Inside the building, many of the same arguments presented at last year's hearing were rehashed by the states and the non-Indian parties, just in a different room and before a larger set of judges. The attorney for the individual plaintiffs pleaded his clients' case with almost the exact same words in fact. "My clients opened their hearts and their homes to a child in need and embraced that child as a part of their family," Matthew McGill told the court. "They are here because the Indian Child Welfare Act's placement preferences turned their lives and their families upside down, solely because the child they took in is an Indian child, and they are not -- and cannot be, because of their race -- Indian families." The lead named plaintiffs are Chad Brackeen and Jennifer Brackeen of Texas. They have already succeeded in adopting a boy from the Navajo Nation and are in the process of adopting the boy's sister in spite of their complaints about ICWA hindering their efforts. Kyle Hawkins, the Solicitor General of Texas, advanced familiar arguments as well. He said ICWA violates the U.S. Constitution because it "commandeers" states by forcing them to follow child welfare policies dictated by the federal government. Regulations issued by the Bureau of Indian Affairs are illegal for the same reason, he told the court. "ICWA is the rare federal statute that violates both anti-commandeering and non-delegation principles," said Hawkins, highlighting a legal doctrine that has gained traction in recent years, largely due to efforts by state governments and by conservative groups, including those seeking to undermine or invalidate ICWA.
The only major difference between Wednesday's hearing and the one which took place last April was the inclusion of the Navajo Nation in the oral argument. Yet Paul Spruhan, the tribe's assistant attorney general, was forced more than once to address the blood quantum issues that some judges raised. "The Navajo Nation -- a treaty tribe -- is here to defend the Indian Child Welfare Act as a statute that fulfills the federal government's treaty obligations to sovereign tribal nations," Spruhan told the court, calling attention to the legal document signed in 1868. In addition to tribal officials, a large number of tribal citizens and tribal advocates attended the hearing, resulting in the court opening an overflow room for the crowd. Leaders and representatives of the National Indian Child Welfare Association, the National Congress of American Indians, the Association on American Indian Affairs and the Native American Rights Fund, who collectively formed the Protect ICWA Campaign, were among those in New Orleans for the arguments. “We are proud to be part of a broad bipartisan coalition supporting the Indian Child Welfare Act,” the organizations said after the hearing, pointing to state attorneys general and members of Congress who submitted briefs in defense of the law. “We are confident that the hearing before the full panel of judges signifies the Court’s recognition of how careful Congress was to craft ICWA as a model of cooperative federalism, and how important ICWA is every day in helping achieve the best interests of Indian children and families.”
Indian Country turned out in full force to defend the sovereignty of tribal nations & our most valuable asset—our children. Leaders from Cherokee Nation, Morongo Band of Mission Indians, Oneida Nation & Quinault Nation at court hearing for Indian Child Welfare Act. #DefendICWA pic.twitter.com/C1P5eUznp3— indianz.com (@indianz) January 22, 2020
The 5th Circuit did not give an indication of when it might issue a ruling. The losing party, or parties, would then be able to take the case to the Supreme Court, whose last ICWA matter was Adoptive Couple v. Baby Girl. It didn't turn out so well for tribal interests. By a vote of 5 to 4, the justices allowed a non-Indian couple to adopt a Cherokee Nation girl over the objections of her biological father, who is a citizen of the tribe. The majority opinion sounded alarm on the so-called "ICWA trump card" -- the very same issue the non-Indian plaintiffs in Brackeen have raised. And while Baby Girl came out almost seven years ago, in June 2013, it apparently has stuck in the minds of the nation's jurists. The handful of members of the 5th Circuit who brought up blood quantum at Wednesday's hearing used the exact same percentage -- 3/256 -- from the high court's ruling, disregarding the fact that the Cherokee Nation does not employ blood quantum to determine citizenship. "It bothers me from the standpoint that blood quantum does not define who an Indian is, at least not in Cherokee Nation," Chief Hoskin said after the hearing. "I don't know another nation on this planet where we talk about blood quantum, and I don't think Indian tribes should be any different," Hoskin added.
#ICWA reaffirms the inherent right of tribal nations to protect, safeguard, and secure our Native children and families.— NICWA (@NativeChildren) January 23, 2020
Thank you to everyone who shared why they are #ProudtoProtectICWA! ICWA advocacy doesn't end today, find out more ways to take action: https://t.co/NniCI9M1d4 pic.twitter.com/S9pXnoW5uU
The five justices who went against tribal interests in Baby Girl ruling remain on the court. In contrast, one of the members who defended the ICWA rights of the Cherokee Nation parent, is no longer there. "This father wants to raise his daughter, and the statute amply protects his right to do so," the late justice Antonin Scalia wrote of ICWA in his dissent. "There is no reason in law or policy to dilute that protection." President Sharp of the Quinault Nation said "there's no way to tell" what might happen if ICWA goes to the Supreme Court again. Brackeen presents a different set of issues from the prior case, she noted, so it's hard to make a prediction. "The rights that we are advocating were not given to us by anyone. They were not given to us by Congress, they were not given to us by any state," Sharp said of tribes and their inherent sovereignty. Turtle Talk has posted briefs from the en banc proceeding in Brackeen v. Bernhardt.
#ICWA is a long-standing federal law protecting the well-being of Native children by upholding family integrity and stability within their community. If you want to learn more check out @NativeChildren— CNAY | Native Youth (@Center4Native) January 23, 2020
Our two new interns are #ProudtoProtectICWA pic.twitter.com/XmCifH3DmJ
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Fawn Sharp: The attack on the Indian Child Welfare Act cannot stand (March 21, 2019)
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