In recent years and especially in the past months, there has been sensationalized news coverage about the controversial adoptions of Native American children into non-tribal families or their placement into foster care. Given the unfortunate coverage and several heartbreaking cases, it’s important to think back on how we got here and remember the centuries of injustice that Native families have faced.  

For much of the nation’s history, the United States has had a difficult and challenging relationship with Indian Country. Indeed, there have been dark chapters that both sides would prefer to forget and never wish to repeat. One of those longest chapters involved the forcible and heartbreaking separation of Native American children from their families and their tribal heritage. 

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Prior to the passage of the Indian Child Welfare Act (ICWA) in 1978, it had become apparent that Native American children were systematically being taken from their homes and either put up for adoption or placed in foster care. The rate at which Native American children were taken was especially alarming to tribal nations that depend on their youth to preserve a truly unique heritage. Further, the disproportionate rate of these separations raised suspicions that they were based less in decisions about the well-being of children and perhaps more about separating youth from their tribal culture. In a repeat of the forced boarding school era, tribal nations were once again being told that to save their children, they had to be removed from their communities and cultures. 

When Congress passed ICWA, it was meant to solve a very real identity problem for Native American children, help loving families stay together and also prevent unnecessary holes in tribal communities. But most importantly, it sought—and still aims—to ensure children live in the environment where they are best cared for and most loved.  

Certainly, tribal nations care deeply for their youth and the continuation of a special heritage to them, and ICWA is meant to help the majority of Native American children and youth stay connected with that heritage. However, there are circumstances when that is not possible, either with the absence of a willing guardian in the tribe or due to an abusive living environment. In such cases, ICWA provides guidance and requirements for legal separations, including private adoptions and foster care placements. But similar to the Hague convention that regulates international adoptions, ICWA encourages tribal nations to make a reasonable effort to facilitate a tribal adoption first—preferably with a family member.  

As with any matter involving the safety of our nation’s children, everyone wants a simple and certain solution. As legislators, we must ensure that ICWA continues to serve the best interests of Native American children and prevent their safety from being jeopardized. The hope is that Native American children can safely remain with their tribe and be brought up to know and appreciate their important heritage. We should be careful about the language we use and the laws we put forward, and ultimately, when interpreting or revising ICWA, we should reflect on what is best for Native American children.

Cole has represented Oklahoma’s 4th Congressional District since 2003. He sits on the Appropriations; the Budget; and the Rules committees. McCollum has represented Minnesota’s 4th Congressional District since 2001. She sits on the Appropriations Committee. Cole is a member of the Chickasaw Nation of Oklahoma. He and McCollum serve as co-chairs of the Native American Caucus in the House.