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Supreme Court's ICWA ruling is a major victory for Native American rights

LEILA FADEL, HOST:

The U.S. Supreme Court delivered an unexpected win for Native American nations yesterday. By a 7-2 vote, the court rejected challenges to the Indian Child Welfare Act. The 1978 law is intended to help keep Native American adoptees with their nation. The lead plaintiffs, a white couple seeking to adopt a second Navajo child, argued the law promoted racial discrimination. Joining us now is Tehassi Hill, chairman for the Oneida Nation in Wisconsin. It's among the five nations involved in the case.

Good morning.

TEHASSI HILL: Good morning. Thank you.

FADEL: So when you heard the decision, what was your initial reaction?

HILL: I was quite excited, a little bit emotional, to tell you the truth - very strong case to have this type of decision on.

FADEL: You said you got emotional. If you could, just explain what this Supreme Court decision means for your nation and other Native nations.

HILL: Yeah. You know, first of all, it's really about the protection of our families and our children, especially those in the most need when they're facing having their families separated. And so having these guidelines in place are really helpful for tribal nations to maintain our culture and our identity through our children.

FADEL: Yeah. As I mentioned, the lead plaintiffs claimed the law promoted racial discrimination. And the five nations involved in the case argued they're political entities, not racial groups. If you could, break down the important distinction here.

HILL: Yes, definitely. So tribal nations across this country have treaties with the federal government. And that has been kind of the long-standing standard of identifying that these are political interactions and not racial interactions. And so with that, I guess, long-standing history on our side, that tribes are political in nature, not racial in nature, has really been kind of the main point of the case.

FADEL: If we could, talk about the origins of this law. It was enacted nearly 50 years ago, really, to protect Native kids at a time when massive numbers of children were being removed from their homes, often forcibly, and placed outside of their communities. What kind of harm did that do to children, their families and to Native nations?

HILL: Yeah, definitely. You know, for the children, it was really a loss of identity and cultural connection. And we find that - you know, that that's very important for the development of the child and also the continuation of our nations across the country, is that cultural connection with our children to pass along our stories and our heritage and our language. And so, you know, the previous federal policy was to, you know, do away with Indians. And so this reversal with this ICWA really helped tribes in the long run be able to maintain that cultural connection and that continuity of government.

FADEL: Explain that importance, of keeping Native children, when for some reason they can't be with their families, they need to be adopted or put in foster care, to keep them within their nations.

HILL: Yeah, it's really about, you know, relaying the importance and the culture and the identity for each of the tribal nations across this country. And it's really, you know, the basis for our nations. And so that cultural, I guess, competency and/or language and culture is very important to our tribal nations. And trying to make sure that we maintain that is kind of paramount, is - that's really, you know, one of the distinguishers between our tribal nations.

FADEL: Tehassi Hill is chairman for the Oneida Nation in Wisconsin.

Thank you for your time.

HILL: Thank you. Very happy to be here. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

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