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NICWA’s Reno conference sets attendance record

Attendees were excited to be back together in person after three years. (Courtesy NICWA)

It appears that a lot of people really have missed getting together for in-person events.

The National Indian Child Welfare Association’s (NICWA) annual “Protecting Our Children” conference – its 41st – took place in Reno, Nevada, April 2-5. Organizers were thrilled that attendance at the conference set an all-time record with 1,802 attendees.

“We beat the record by hundreds,” Sarah Kastelic (Alutiiq), NICWA executive director, said. “Before the pandemic, we were getting about 1,500.”

The Seminole Tribe was once again a lead sponsor of the event.

Kastelic thinks a string of three virtual conferences during the pandemic from 2020 to 2022 helped to keep people engaged with the organization, but feeling pent up in front of computers instead of meeting and socializing in person.

NICWA shifted to a virtual format in 2020 just two weeks before it was to meet in Denver, Colorado. In 2021, the conference was planned to be virtual and in 2022 the hope was to meet in person in Orlando, but those plans changed out of an abundance of caution due to the pandemic.

“Folks that come year after year could walk in a ballroom and see dear friends we haven’t seen in a long time,” Kastelic said. “People who have had incredibly difficult years.”

Kastelic said the conference has always focused on appreciation for those who work in child welfare, often with families in crisis. She said it can be an intense and sometimes isolating job.

“For people to come back together and have connection and support was very restorative,” she said.

Kastelic said she thought there was another reason why attendance was so high this year – the U.S. Supreme Court. The court is poised to hand down a decision after a string of challenges to the Indian Child Welfare Act (ICWA). She said the anticipation is high as a decision could come as soon as the end of April.

“We’re hearing really conflicting things, and the Supreme Court holds everything close to the vest. We won’t get much of a heads up,” Kastelic said. “On the other hand, this court has been one of the slowest to churn out opinions. We’re in a position where everyone is trying to read the tea leaves.”

Kastelic said NICWA and its supporters are doing what they can in advance of a decision, no matter what it might be. She said it could range from validation of the law, an invalidation of it, or more likely, something in-between.

“It’s on the minds of tribal leaders and administrators as well as the front line workers,” Kastelic said.

Another reason for the robust attendance, Kastelic said, is that child welfare workers in Canada’s First Nations communities are also facing challenges to its version of ICWA, which just went into effect in January 2022.

“They’ve just been doing it for about a year. After a full year of implementation the court challenges started to come,” she said. “It’s the same kind of attacks as in the U.S.”

Even though many of the topics at multiple conference sessions and workshops involve intense subject matter, Kastelic said there were many happy moments.

Kastelic recalled walking up and down the halls at the Peppermint Reno Hotel Resort while 12 workshops were simultaneously underway.

“We were not only wanting to be together in person, but we brought our culture to the spaces,” she said. “There was drumming in one room and singing in another. There was always some of that, but it was more than ever before. Culture is foundation of the work we’re trying to do.”

The next two NICWA conference locations have been set – Seattle in 2024 and Orlando in 2025.

More 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