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Conference tackles weighty Indian Country issues

This graphic was created by Viola Clark to represent the conference’s opening keynote titled: “Homecoming: Our Journeys and Experiences.” (Courtesy NICWA)

The National Indian Child Welfare Association (NICWA) held a virtual conference for a third consecutive year April 3-6. A range of Indian Country issues was presented during the three-day event. Sessions examined the status of the Indian Child Welfare Act (ICWA), the impacts of federal Indian boarding school policies and efforts to facilitate healing, recruitment of Native foster parents, and domestic violence education and prevention efforts, among others.

The Seminole Tribe was once again the host sponsor. The “Protecting Our Children” conference is in its 40th year.

NICWA executive director Sarah Kastelic (Alutiiq) said this year was the most well attended of the online format, with about 1,500 attendees. The conference had been set to take place in person in Orlando, but concerns about the pandemic shifted those plans.

Kastelic said attendees reported that they particularly liked a session featuring people who shared their personal experiences with child welfare systems. She said another popular session was “Trauma-Informed Work with Children,” which highlighted resources that are available from the Sesame Street in Communities program.

“Participants chatted throughout the plenary sessions and related their own experiences, asking questions and sharing resources,” Kastelic said in an email to the Tribune. “We’re so pleased to be able to serve our community of dedicated advocates for Native children this way.”   

Attendees received an update on federal legislation – called the “Truth and Healing Commission” – that has been established to create a formal and funded way to investigate, document and acknowledge the past human rights violations at Indian boarding schools.

“It is long past time that the federal government reckon with the intergenerational trauma that it inflicted through these Indian boarding school policies,” Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-MA, said in a keynote speech to attendees.

In “Emerging Tribal Child Welfare Practice Paths through the Heart, Head, Ways and Tools,” presenters gave an overview of training that is available for those working on the frontlines of Indian child welfare.

“This training is informed by my Anishinaabe culture. We are taught that we are supposed to keep a balance between your head and your heart,” Cortney Bolt (Potawatomi Nation), program manager at the Center for Tribal Social Work at the University of Oklahoma-Tulsa, said. “Within our heart, that is where all of our values and ancestral knowledge and identity are. My granny said, ‘Your heart is your decision-maker, whereas your head provides context and extends that knowledge. The heart can live without the head, but the head will get lost without the heart.’”

The Sesame Street Muppets made an appearance on the second day. Sesame Street’s director of content design, Kama Einhorn, talked about “trauma-informed approaches” in working with children and families through use of the Muppets.

The status of ICWA received a lot of attention among organizers and attendees. The law has been challenged as unconstitutional in recent years (known as Brackeen v. Haaland) and the U.S. Supreme Court recently decided to hear the case in its next session, which begins in October.

Speakers shared three “calls to action” for ICWA supporters to employ to help ensure survival of the 44-year-old law. The calls to action were:

  • Encourage your tribe, state, representative and/or senator to sign onto an amicus brief in Brackeen v. Haaland.
  • Invite people in your network to learn about ICWA. Send them a resource, podcast or news article.
  • Work with your tribe to think about what you can do to help support policies at the state level that can be positive, real supports for Native children and families.

More information is at

Damon Scott
Damon is a multimedia journalist for the Seminole Tribune. He has previously been an editor and reporter for digital and print media in Florida and his home state of New Mexico. Send him an email at