U.S. Supreme Court's pending decision on a Native American adoption law will impact Mississippi Choctaws. Credit: Courtesy of the Mississippi Band of Choctaw Indians

The Mississippi Band of Choctaw Indians has joined the celebration of a victory handed down by the U.S. Supreme Court to uphold a 1978 law that aims to keep together Native American children and their families and support tribal sovereignty. 

“This is an important win for tribal sovereignty and for tribal children,” Tribal Chief Cyrus Ben said in a Friday statement. “Protecting the welfare of our children is essential to the survival of our language, culture, and traditions.” 

The court ruled 7 to 2 Thursday in Brackeen v. Haaland, which centered on whether the Indian Child Welfare Act was constitutional. The act governs child custody of Native children. 

Justice Amy Coney Barrett wrote the majority opinion and was joined by six other justices, while 

Justices Clarence Thomas and Samuel A. Alito Jr., dissented.

“By now, the full picture has come into view and it is easy to see why ICWA must stand,” Justice Neil Gorsuch wrote in a concurring opinion. “Under our Constitution, Tribes remain independent sovereigns responsible for governing their own affairs.” 

If Native American children are removed from their parents, the act sets preferences to place them with other family members, other members of the tribe or a different tribe. 

The case was brought by a white foster couple from Texas, Chad and Jennifer Brackeen, against five tribes and the U.S. Department of the Interior over the adoption of American children. The couple was able to adopt one  Native American child, because the Navajo Nation was unable to find a Navajo family to take him. The couple then tried to adopt the boy’s sister, but the girl’s extended family wanted to take her in. Two other non-Native American  couples, who adopted Native American  children even after challenges from the tribes where the children were eligible for membership, joined the lawsuit along with three states.

The plaintiff families said the law discriminated against non-Native families and the children they wanted to adopt on the basis of race. 

ICWA recognizes that tribes have sovereignty and exclusive jurisdiction over their members who live on tribal land or are domiciled there. 

During oral arguments, the justices heard arguments about whether tribes are political entities or racial groups, which is an argument defendants said threatened tribal rights and sovereignty. 

More than 450 tribal nations filed amicus briefs in support of ICWA, and numerous Native American organizations, child welfare organizations, over half of all states and members of Congress showed support for the act.  

ICWA was created in response to the mistreatment of generations of Native American people by the government and private citizens such as through the enrollment of children in boarding schools and the adoption of children out of tribes into non-Native families. 

In 1978, between a quarter and a third of all Native children were taken from their families and 

put in foster homes, up for adoption or into institutions, according to surveys by the Association on American Indian Affairs. 

During Senate committee hearings about Indian child welfare,  then Choctaw Chief Calvin Isaac testified that raising Native children in non-Native homes reduces tribes’ chances of survival. 

His testimony was cited in the Supreme Court’s decision and in a 1989 case brought by the tribe that helped define ICWA. 

In Mississippi Band of Choctaw Indians v. Holyfield, the Supreme Court ruled that through the ICWA, tribal courts have the power to hear adoption proceedings for Native children. 

The court ruled tribes have jurisdiction over children domiciled on a reservation based on tribe membership or eligible membership, even if they aren’t physically present there. 

MBCI is the state’s only federally recognized tribe. Over 11,000 members are descendants of Choctaws who remained in Mississippi to preserve their cultural heritage and ancestral homelands, said Chief Ben. 

“Today, just as in the past, the preservation and security of our Tribe, our culture, and our tribal children and families are of utmost importance,” he said.

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Mina, a California native, covers the criminal justice system. Before joining Mississippi Today, she was a reporter for the Clarion Ledger and newspapers in Massachusetts. Her work has appeared in the Los Angeles Times, Boston Globe and USA Today.