Opinion: The Indian Child Welfare Act Safeguarded My Connection To My Tribal Community And My Identity

As the nation awaits a Supreme Court ruling on the constitutionality of the Indian Child Welfare Act (ICWA), Fawn Robinson, a 22 year old tribal member of the Susanville Indian Rancheria, writes about the ICWA’s purpose and value and explains how it has positively impacted her tribal identity.
Fawn Robinson, a Tribal member of the Susanville Indian Rancheria, wears a traditional pine nut necklace.

I’m an enrolled member of the Susanville Rancheria and have descendancy from the Mountain Maidu, Northern Paiute, Pit River, Washoe, and Hopi Tribes. When I was five months old, I was placed into my maternal great aunt and great uncle’s care, and over time I came to know them as Mom and Dad. When I was four, my biological brother was placed into my parents’ home, and at eight my sister — who is a member of the Pit River Tribe — became part of our family as well. My brother, sister, and I were all able to remain in our relatives’ care and maintain important connections to our Tribal community in California because of the Indian Child Welfare Act (ICWA).

Robinson and her brother stand with her mom, dad and the judge on their shared adoption day. Photo courtesy of Fawn Robinson.

ICWA was passed in 1978 to address the centuries-old practice of separating Native children from their families. It’s a vital and relevant law that has had a profound effect on my life and the lives of many other Native children — but its future is uncertain. Last week, the Supreme Court heard arguments on Haaland v. Brackeen, the case that could dismantle ICWA. What the Court decides will impact generations of Native families. 

ICWA prioritizes placing children with members of their extended family or Tribe (as my brother and I were placed) or, if that isn’t available, within the broader Native community (as in my sister’s placement). It ensures that representatives from Tribes are involved in the placement, guardianship, and adoption process for Native children. ICWA doesn’t require that Native kids are placed with Native families, but it creates a framework designed to maintain long-term cultural connections. 

ICWA has been called the “gold standard” of child welfare legislation, and is widely considered best practice among children’s rights organizations and foster care experts. There is strong, bipartisan support for ICWA: in August, 23 states — including California, but also red states like Arizona, South Dakota, and Utah — filed an amicus brief in support. So did a bipartisan coalition of 87 Members of Congress.

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Research has shown that kids who are connected to their identity and culture have higher self-esteem and achieve greater academic success. ICWA gave me a chance to know my family and keep the strong ties my biological mom had to our Tribe, connections I might have otherwise lost. Many other Native youth who have benefited from ICWA share my experience.

Growing up, I remember attending powwows, being with my GiGi (great-grandmother) at the elders’ eatery, helping my auntie make fry bread and Indian tacos, and going to cultural events. My mentor taught me our traditional ways of acorn processing and pine nut necklace-making. 

I didn’t know the research or data about best practices in foster care and Native adoptions then. All I knew was that, because my Tribe and family were in my life, I knew who I was, where I came from, and was proud to be part of my community. 

Over time, I was inspired by my Gigi and Mom to get involved in my Tribe. At 14, I started working for the Natural Resource Department. I am part of my rancheria’s ICWA committee, and I run the teen program. Some of the children I work with are ICWA placements who, like me, have been able to maintain their connections to the community alongside others who understand their unique experience growing up as a Native person. Now, I teach them acorn processing and pine nut necklace-making. 

Materials used during traditional acorn processing. Photo courtesy of Fawn Robinson.

Our children are the future. Our traditional knowledge, language, and cultural practices must be passed down, or we will lose that connection. The separation of Native families — which led to the enactment of ICWA in the first place — is ongoing. Nationally, Native children are still removed from their homes at 2–3 times the rate of white children. In some states, that number is even higher

If ICWA is overturned, many Native families will lose the ability to form vital connections between generations. 

Fawn Robinson is a 22 year old graduate of Lassen Community College and a tribal member of the Susanville Indian Rancheria (SIR.) She’s also the chairwoman of the SIR Indian Child Welfare Act Committee and the youth program advocate for the Rancheria’s teen center. Robinson writes for Shasta Scout as part of our Community Voices series, which illuminates lived experiences, identities, issues or perspectives that are often misunderstood. Community Voices is supported by a grant from the North State Equity Fund. Want to share your thoughts and opinions with our readers? You can submit your writing here.

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