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11/04/2021 Commemorating National Native American Heritage Month

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November is National Native American Heritage Month, commonly referred to as American Indian and Alaska Native Heritage Month. It’s a time to celebrate the cultures, traditions, histories, and resilience of Native people. 

This includes recognizing the contributions of Native Americans in the areas of child welfare and services for adults with developmental disabilities. Some of these champions include: 

  • Jen Deerinwater, a self-identified “bisexual, Two Spirit, multiply-disabled, citizen of the Cherokee Nation of Oklahoma” whose writings have brought the issues of Native Americans living with disabilities into mainstream discourse.
  • The late Cinda Hughes of the Kiowa Tribe of Oklahoma was born with a condition that interfered with the growth of her limbs, making her dependent on the use of a wheelchair her entire life. She turned her passion for disability rights advocacy into her profession, eventually holding high level positions at the National Congress of American Indians and the federal Bureau of Indian Affairs.
  • Madonna Thunder Hawk, a member of the Oohenumpa band of the Cheyenne River Sioux Tribe, helped found the Lakota People’s Law Project, which grew out of efforts by Lakota grandmothers to prevent South Dakota’s Department of Social Services from removing their grandchildren from their families. 

The work of Rebecca Nagle, however, a journalist and activist whose reporting on custody cases involving Native children through her riveting podcast series This Land, demonstrates the importance of connecting history with current events. (Nagle’s work also shows why awareness-raising events such as November’s National Native American Heritage Month are so important to honor and commemorate.) 

Nationally, Native American/Alaskan Native children represent less than one percent of all U.S. children. But they comprise 2.4 percent of all children entering foster care, which means they are represented in the child welfare system at nearly three times their population rate. As Nagle and others have explained, the over-representation of Native children in our child welfare system is part of a long and ugly history of systematic mistreatment of Native Americans by the U.S. government that began with the creation of American Indian boarding schools in the late 1800s. 

As part of an effort to “civilize” Native people and assimilate them into the dominant white society, families were coerced into sending their children away to schools with substandard living and learning conditions, where students were forced to leave behind their Native culture, customs, and language. About a third of Native children were forced into the schools, which operated in some form until the 1970s. Untold numbers of students got sick and died at these institutions, or simply disappeared. In the 1950s and 1960s, a new government program facilitated the adoption of Native children by white families; studies from the late 1960s and early 1970s revealed that one in four of all Native children had been taken from their families and tribes.

The passage of the Indian Child Welfare Act (ICWA) in 1978 was intended to put an end to the indiscriminate removal of Native children from their tribe, primarily by ensuring that Native children whose parents could not care for them were placed with other relatives, fellow tribe members, or other Native caretakers. Compliance with the law, however, has been uneven, which is one of the reasons why Native children continue to be overrepresented in foster care. 

Now, as Nagle has convincingly reported in This Land, the very existence of the ICWA is being threatened by custody cases, one of which is expected to be argued before the United States Supreme Court. That case, Brackeen v. Haaland, involves a Navajo and Cherokee toddler who was placed with a white couple from the suburbs of Dallas when he was a baby. Although the couple had been told that they could not adopt the child when he was placed with them, they went ahead and sued the federal government anyway for the right to adopt the child. And they are doing so with the assistance of powerful corporations who see the case as an opportunity to also dismantle “a whole chain of legislation around Native sovereignty, with huge implications for land use, water rights and gaming rights,” as Marketplace has reported. “In short, a successful legal challenge to this one law, which has now reached the steps of the Supreme Court, could mean a lot of money for a whole lot of non-Native people.” 

In his proclamation declaring National Native American Heritage Month, President Biden observed that, “Far too often in our founding era and in the centuries since, the promise of our Nation has been denied to Native Americans who have lived on this land since time immemorial,” referencing “a painful history marked by unjust Federal policies of assimilation and termination.” 

As we commemorate Native American Heritage Month, the litigation Nagle has been reporting on is a stark reminder that the challenges faced by Native Americans/Alaskan Natives aren’t a matter of history. They continue today with serious consequences for children and adults living with disabilities. This is why HopeWell’s work to break down unjust barriers due to racism, ableism, homophobia, gender-based discrimination, and other prejudices remains core to our mission.

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