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Advocates say challenge to federal law threatens Tribal sovereignty in Virginia

Pamela D'Angelo

Removal of Indigenous children from their families and Tribes was stopped by Congress in 1978. But advocates say a challenge before the U.S. Supreme Court threatens the law and the sovereignty of Virginia’s tribal nations.

European settlers forced Indigenous assimilation to their culture by putting Native children in boarding schools or adopting them out to White families. The most famous account is that of 16-year-old Pocahontas, who was kidnapped in 1613. Some 25 to 35 percent of Native children had been taken from their families when Congress passed the Indian Child Welfare Act or ICWA.

"The Indian Child Welfare Act is the most critical law to Tribes to maintain their culture. Because if you cannot keep your children with your Tribe, you can’t pass on your culture," says Marion Werkheiser. Werkheiser is an attorney with Cultural Heritage Partners in Richmond.

In the Supreme Court case, a white couple trying to adopt an Indigenous boy say ICWA is preferential to members of the Indian race versus a member of a Tribe. "And that’s a really big distinction. If you are a citizen of a tribal nation, that’s not a racial classification. It’s citizenship," Werkheiser argues.

This political relationship underpins all of Indian law. That’s where tribal sovereignty could be damaged by this case. "There’s a lot of discussion about the ability of Tribes to make their own decisions over their own land and their own resources," according to Werkheiser. "And so there’s the potential that the court could come out with a decision that would undermine the self-determination of Tribes."

The Supreme Court will issue its decision later next year.

This report, provided by Virginia Public Radio, was made possible with support from the Virginia Education Association.

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