The University of Tulsa College of Law is an international center for Native American Law education and debate. Last week’s Supreme Court decision in Adoptive Couple v. Baby Girl (better known as the ‘Baby Veronica case’) was a landmark ruling that resonated with the community and those who work closely with law.
Walter Echo-Hawk, TU College of Law adjunct professor, and alumna Sara Hill (JD ’03), Senior Assistant Attorney General of the Cherokee Nation, have allowed us to share their perspectives on the ruling.
Echo-Hawk’s comments were featured in a Native Times article this week, ‘Baby Veronica’ prompts reflection, prayer circles across Indian Country.
“Before 1978, the year ICWA was passed, Indian Tribes across the country were facing an acute human rights crisis. The crisis arose from the systematic taking of Indian children by state child welfare systems and state courts. This got to the point where, on a national basis, one in four Indian children had been removed from their families.
That staggering and frightening statistic placed the very cultural survival of Indian nations into jeopardy. Because culture is passed down from parents and grandparents to children, taking away children destroys culture. According to the United Nations, in its genocide convention, the systematic taking of children from one cultural group and placing them with another is one of the definitions of genocide.
This problem led to a number of hearings before Congress when it faced this very severe human rights problem in 1978. This led to a law, and Congress made findings. Among those Congress found that an alarmingly high number of Indian families are broken up by the removal of children from their families by non-tribal public and private agencies. Congress stated that the cause of this problem is that the states, in exercising their jurisdiction over Indians have often failed to understand the essential tribal relations of Indian people and the cultural and social standards important to Indian communities and families.
Applying main street American values in Indian child custody decisions, or ignoring the cultural aspects and the cultural importance of children in the survival of Indian Tribes, is what Congress meant to stop with the Indian Child Welfare Act.
The Indian Child Welfare Act has been working quite well since 1978. Without this statute we would again be confronted with the specter of cultural genocide by the systematic taking of Indian children that Congress meant to prevent. As the Supreme Court in the Baby Veronica case indicated, these protections are within the power of Congress. We need this law, because it strengthens the cultural survival of Indian tribes in the United States.
One other additional factor is the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous People. The Declaration lays out minimum standards for the survival, wellbeing and dignity of indigenous people. It calls on every nation to implement these basic human right standards. The Declaration does not create special rights, but extends to indigenous peoples the kinds of dignity the rest of humanity already has. Among the UN Declaration’s rights is the right to be free of forcible taking of children from indigenous people.
The University of Tulsa’s Worcester Sovereignty Project (WSP) is intended to protect and advance tribal sovereignty. Frontal attacks on Tribal sovereignty, like the arguments made in the Baby Veronica case require rebuff, and the WSP is designed to aid Tribes in that effort.
The Baby Veronica case demonstrates the need for the WSP. Since 1985, Indian Tribes have lost 80% of the cases before the US Supreme Court. Statistics indicate that prison inmates fare better than Indian Tribes before the Court. A case like Baby Veronica affects important interests – nothing could be more important than our families and our culture. It is frightening to place these important interests before a hostile Court.
We need vigorous law training for our next generation of Indian attorneys to strengthen statutes like the Indian Child Welfare Act, and to better the way statutes are interpreted by the courts. Among the many challenges that Indian Country faces is to train a strong new generation of tribal attorneys to address issues like those found in the Baby Veronica case. That is what WSP is built to achieve.”
I am very grateful for the leadership of the Tulsa Law School, our Dean, Janet Levit, our faculty and our administration, who are all very supportive of the notion of protecting tribal sovereignty, and are supporting WSP and Tribal Sovereignty with their resolve.”
Sara Hill (JD ’03):
“The Baby Veronica case is a narrowly tailored opinion, which as Justice Breyer indicated, could have had a completely different result with slightly different facts. Despite how the opinion portrays the facts of this case, this father never abandoned his child, and Cherokee Nation is determined to see that she remains in the Cherokee Nation and in the loving home provided by her father.
The Court struggled with the definition of ‘family,’ because the ‘main street’ definition of family doesn’t translate in Indian country. Congress, through the Indian Child Welfare Act, chose to respect and protect each tribe’s definition of ‘family’ by empowering Indian tribes and providing federal protection for essential family relationships. It’s unfortunate that the majority failed to respect and protect the relationship between this child and her father; if the Court had been guided by Congress’ findings and policy declaration, its understanding of ‘family’ should have been different, and the SCOTUS decision would have been different.”