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NCAI leaders see ICWA, land issues as urgent priorities

DENVER — There are many issues on the minds of tribal members and leaders across North America that affect Indian Country. Some are more pressing than others.

Two topics that took center stage at the recent National Congress of American Indians (NCAI) conference in Denver were the surprising court ruling that challenges the Indian Child Welfare Act (ICWA) and tribal land and sovereignty issues.

The NCAI marked its 75th anniversary at an annual convention and marketplace at the Hyatt Regency Denver at Colorado Convention Center Oct. 21 – 26.

ICWA in jeopardy

Court appeals have been filed in response to a decision in early October by a federal judge in Texas which ruled the ICWA was unconstitutional.

The ICWA is a 40-year-old law that was designed to prevent the separation of Native children from their parents and extended families by state child welfare and private adoption agencies.

The law was enacted in response to research at the time showing that of the approximately 35 percent of Native children who were being removed from parents, 85 percent were placed outside their families and communities, even when fit and willing relatives were available.

U.S. District Judge Reed O’Connor of the Northern District of Texas ruled Oct. 4 that the ICWA “illegally gives Native American families preferential treatment in adoption proceedings for Native American children based on race.” The ruling found that the law was in violation of the Fifth Amendment’s equal protection guarantee in the U.S. Constitution.

Naturally, Indian Country and Native American advocates were concerned and even outraged by the decision.

“The ICWA is a great success we achieved in our past and it’s under attack,” said NCAI President Jefferson Keel at a general assembly Oct. 23. “We are in a war. We’ve been in one since 1492. We need allies on both sides of the aisle. With this administration, we are in a war,” he said.

Keel was referencing President Donald J. Trump and what he sees as an overall lack of support for Native Americans by his administration.

Sarah Kastelic, executive director of the National Indian Child Welfare Association (NICWA), spoke about ICWA at the general assembly as well.

The ruling was also the topic of an official breakout session at the conference and the NCAI leadership held subcommittee meetings about staying connected to current court appeals.

Kastelic took time to promote a new ICWA mobile app that was developed by the Academy for Professional Excellence’s Tribal STAR program. It’s designed to assist social workers who have cases involving the ICWA and others.

The app, available for Apple and Android devices, has resources for anyone involved in ICWA issues – the courts, state child welfare agencies, private adoption agencies, Tribes and family members.

Land, sovereignty

Tribal sovereignty and self-governance are a part of many different Indian Country topics, but one that consistently came up among leaders at NCAI was land issues. All agreed the issue is complex.

Speakers at NCAI often pointed out that while protecting tribal homelands was a priority under former President Barack Obama’s Administration, especially due to the efforts of former Secretary of the Interior Ken Salazar, it has not been a priority in the President Trump Administration.

“[Land issues have] been immediately challenging under Trump,” said Lawrence Roberts, counsel with Kilpatrick Townsend and former acting assistant secretary for Indian Affairs, at the general assembly.

Roberts said that at the state level, land-into-trust issues are also being challenged. And he said most of the challenges are not related to gaming.

Cedric Cromwell, chairman and president of the Mashpee Wampanoag Tribe in Massachusetts, spoke to the general assembly at length about his tribe’s current land-trust issues.

Mashpee Wampanoag leaders are pushing for congressional help to keep more than 300 acres of land originally put into trust in 2015. The tribe lost a court ruling and the Trump Administration is siding with the court.

The situation is pressure packed for the Mashpee Wampanoag. Among other issues, it puts plans for a $1 billion resort and casino into limbo.

Founded in 1944, the NCAI is the oldest and largest American Indian and Alaska Native organization that serves the broad interests of tribal governments and communities.

The National Congress of American Indians held its annual convention at the Hyatt Regency Denver at Colorado Convention Center from Oct. 21-26. The theme was “Honoring the Past, Shaping the Future.” (Photo Damon Scott)
Kevin Gover (Pawnee), director of Smithsonian’s National Museum of the American Indian, speaks about protecting sovereignty during the NCAI conference Oct. 23 in Denver. (Photo Damon Scott)
Sarah Kastelic (Alutiiq), executive director of the National Indian Child Welfare Association, speaks in October at the NCAI conference in Denver. (Photo Damon Scott)
A welcome reception ceremony is held at the National Congress of American Indians conference in October at the Colorado Convention Center in Denver. (Photo Damon Scott)
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

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