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American-Indian Families

American-indian Child Welfare

One of the most heart-wrenching legacies from the past was the effect of the boarding schools on American-Indian families and children. In part, the unwarranted removal of children from their family of origin by missionaries and the U.S. government helped to bring about activism and outcry from American-Indian communities for something to be done to save their children, families, and tribes. In 1978, Congress enacted P.L. 95-608, which has come to be known as the Indian Child Welfare Act of 1978 (George 1997). The legislative intent behind this law was to stop the unwarranted removal of American-Indian children from their families and to set minimum standards for the removal and placement of the children in the event removal was necessary (Myers 1981). From oral and written testimony given before Congress, it was determined that American-Indian children were being removed at an alarmingly high rate—a rate five times higher than any other group of children. It took action by the U.S. federal government to intervene in the form of passing this statute to help ameliorate the large rate of unwarranted removal of Indian children. This federal law is still in effect and governs how social service agencies remove children if necessary, what services are to be provided and by Indian providers and/or organizations where possible, and stringent placement guidelines for Indian child welfare cases in the event removal is necessary. As a federal law, this statute takes precedence over all state laws in child custody matters involving American-Indian children, except in the case of divorce and delinquency matters unless termination of parental rights occurs at the same time in the case of the latter.

In the case of foster care, it has long been a tradition among American-Indian families to care for the children of other families should the need arise. It is a system that operates much like an informal fostering or adoption network, wherein arrangements are made privately between the families without involving a lawyer or court system. One could liken it to practices in today's society where grandparents are often raising their grandchildren, not only within the American-Indian culture, but also across various cultures in the United States, on an informal basis. The Indian Child Welfare Act (ICWA) requires that social service agents find clear and convincing evidence for removal of an Indian child, whereas state standards require a lesser burden of proof based on the preponderance of the evidence. No longer may Indian children be removed solely on the basis of environmental poverty or alcoholism, as was frequently done in the past. There must be clear and convincing evidence that some type of abuse or neglect has occurred.

The ICWA sets minimum standards and guidelines for the placement of American-Indian children once removal is indicated. These placement priorities apply to foster care and adoption procedures. The first placement priority is always with a relative or extended family member. If this cannot be achieved, which in the majority of cases it can be, then the second placement priority is placement with an American-Indian family of the same tribal affiliation as the child; for example, a child of Ottawa or Odawa descent is placed with a family of the same descendency. If this priority cannot be achieved, then the third and final placement priority is for the Indian child to be placed with an Indian family of a different tribal affiliation than the child; for example, a child of Ottawa or Odawa descent with a family of Chippewa or Ojibwa lineage. It is only as a last resort, and only after placement in one of the first three priorities cannot be met, that an Indian child may be open to placement with any family of any descent as long as it is in the best interests of the Indian child. To date, this is the only federal law in place that affords children the rights and protections of being placed with families, and receiving services from providers, who are of the same racial ethnic heritage—the American Indian. There is no other federal law that affords the same rights and protections to any other group of children in the United States. Children are viewed as the most valuable resource while American-Indian elderly are revered and accorded honor, within the context of the family. American-Indian children are reared with the mindset that there is no gender inequality within the family. For example, Indian males learn to be self-reliant in tasks that are typically considered in the domain of the female role, such as cooking, rearing children, doing laundry and grocery shopping, and cleaning house. American-Indian females are raised knowing how to mow the lawn, perform various mechanical repairs around the home and on their own vehicles, and in other tasks typically regarded as belonging to men. What is most important in raising male and female children is that they learn to be self-reliant and self-sufficient in a variety of tasks so that they are able to take care of themselves in the event that they do not marry, or there is no one else around to help them. For example, among some Woodland Indian tribes, males are taught how to cook, clean, do laundry, and be self-reliant without a female, whereas females are taught how to do basic mechanical maintenance on cars or household items, as well as to paint and perform general repair work (Silvey 1997).

American-Indian families may be found to consist of all types of family forms, as is the case with other populations. There are two-parent, single-parent, and blended families, families without children, live-together partners, foster and adoptive families, and lesbian and gay family members. American-Indian lesbian and gay members, also known as two-spirit people, are accepted and often extolled by Indian tribal groups. The families of American-Indian lesbian and gay persons do not usually abandon or ostracize them, thus helping them face a generally unaccepting American society (Brown 1997).

American-Indian families are not immune from divorce. It is not the preferred family dynamic but it is also not discouraged in the case of domestic violence, substance abuse, abandonment, or irreconcilable differences, for example. Among American Indians, it is not uncommon to hear a divorce or relationship breakup spoken of in terms of "split the blanket," meaning a couple has split up.

Throughout life, American-Indian families have various rituals or ceremonial practices. However, these ritual and ceremonial practices are not universally accepted or practiced by all American Indian tribal families. For example, the southwest Navajo tribe has a practice of using cradleboards for their infants. They also have a ritual wherein the person who is the first to make a newborn or infant smile is then honored by throwing a special feast for the child. Among the eastern and woodland tribes, the firstborn daughter becomes the keeper of the culture, keeper of the family, and in charge of the overall responsibility for their family members when in need, as she advances in life. Additionally, many American-Indian tribes partake in a naming ceremony where an individual tribal member is given his or her Indian name. Usually, a revered elder or spiritual guide is the person who bequeaths the Indian name to the individual based on what is known about the individual's character and potential.


Additional topics

Marriage and Family EncyclopediaMarriage: Cultural AspectsAmerican-Indian Families - General Points Of Interest, Boarding Schools, Family Life Today, American-indian Child Welfare