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ICWA on the mind as Reno approaches

This year’s conference artwork, “Lifeway,” is by North Dakota-based artist Shawna Fricke (Taos Pueblo/Paiute). Fricke said culture is represented through the northern baskets in the floral designs, the traditional dress, and the color scheme of the family. She said the brown tones on the woman represent Mother Earth and the blue on the children represents water and lifeways. (Courtesy NICWA)

The National Indian Child Welfare Association (NICWA) is making final preparations for its annual “Protecting Our Children” conference April 2-5. The in-person gathering is set to take place in Reno, Nevada, after three years of virtual events due to the pandemic.

The Seminole Tribe of Florida and the Shingle Springs Band of Miwok Indians are the host sponsors of the conference.

“I think the most exciting news is that in our first in-person conference since 2019, we’re breaking all our attendance records,” Sarah Kastelic (Alutiiq), NICWA executive director, said.

Three weeks before the conference, Kastelic said there were 1,550 people who had registered. The conference typically attracts about 1,200 people.

The event always covers a wide swath of child welfare issues – there are 65 workshops scheduled – but this year the fate of the Indian Child Welfare Act (ICWA) will be one of the most pressing topics. ICWA states that in custody, adoption and foster care cases, Native American children should be placed with a member of their extended family, if possible. Otherwise, they should be placed with another member of their tribe. If neither scenario is possible, they should be placed with “other Indian families.”

The conference features a “Protect ICWA Campaign” workshop April 4, which is to also be the focus at that evening’s gala banquet. The closing plenary panel April 5 is to feature federal officials in the Administration of Children & Families (part of the Health and Human Services Department) and the Bureau of Indian Affairs, discussing their work on behalf of Native kids and families.

The U.S. Supreme Court is likely to render its ruling in the Haaland v. Brackeen case sometime this spring, after hearing oral arguments Nov. 9, 2022. The oral arguments, which lasted more than three hours, saw a debate about Congress’ authority to enact ICWA, including the application and boundaries of the Indian Commerce Clause of the U.S. Constitution, and whether ICWA violates the Equal Protection Clause (whether ICWA is based upon the political status of Native people and tribes or a racial classification). The court also heard arguments about whether ICWA unlawfully commandeers state agencies’ resources.

Kastelic said that while it’s difficult to predict how the court will rule, the federal government and tribal defendants presented their arguments and responded to questions well.

“It was clear that a number of the justices were strongly pushing back against the plaintiffs’ arguments that ICWA was unconstitutional, especially the more extreme

arguments, like the claim that ICWA protections are based on race,” Kastelic said.

No matter the ruling, Kastelic said the “Protect ICWA Campaign” is preparing resources for tribes and states on how to preserve ICWA’s protections.

“Regardless of how the justices rule, together as ICWA advocates we will work to keep the spirit of ICWA alive by ensuring Native children are connected to their families, tribes, culture, and their sense of belonging,” she said.

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