George Will Gets It All Wrong in His Attack on ICWA

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Race is ugly business. The business of race can be seen in the higher rates of incarceration of black Americans. It is in the higher rates black Americans and Native Americans are killed by law enforcement. It is an aspect of our existence that we created, and one that has no basis in fact. George F. Will attempts to attack the issue of racial separation by targeting the Indian Child Welfare Act (ICWA). He fails.

Mr. Will first attempts to attack the concept of sovereignty in his statement. “The 1978 act’s advocates say it is not about race but about the rights of sovereign tribes, as though that distinction is meaningful.” This attack on Indian Tribal sovereignty is strange when coupled with the call for natural rights. “This is discordant with the inherent individualism of the nation’s foundational natural rights tradition…” This statement of natural relies upon the consent of the governed and the understanding of sovereignty. The sovereignty of the government itself, built off of the American tradition, rests within the rights of the people. Native Americans are no exception. Neither are we an exception to the rule of consent of the governed, and such consent was never granted. It was forced.

Such was the practice of “Kill the Indian, Save the Man” policy within America. That through barbaric practices of “civilizing” the Indian would naturally choose American Society to guide it. So too was the practice of ripping Native children from their culture and heritage. This practice is ongoing. Dwayne Stenstrom was taken from his family at the age of 8. He attests to the loss sense of belonging and sense of self. He would be able to confirm such acts can be violent and disparaging. Not necessarily an act of physical violence, but one of emotional and mental harm. A violent act nonetheless. Violence itself precludes the idea of consent. No consent can ever be truly given through violence.

This lack of consent can be seen in the defiance shown against votes involving Native lands. The continued use of reservation lands despite the abject conditions. The consent was never offered nor given. This is recognized by the United States in its statement for the unique government to government relationship between the tribes and the U.S. It reflects that the tribes have never relinquished their rights to self-determination and have thus never relinquished their sovereignty. The natural rights philosophy would require a relinquishment of both in order for the distinction of sovereignty to lack meaning.

From Mr. Will’s assault on sovereignty he attempts to place the crux of his argument on the ICWA representing race, and not tribal sovereignty. “The most pernicious idea ever in general circulation in the United States is the “one-drop rule,” according to which persons whose ancestry includes any black or Indian admixture are assigned a black or Indian identity.” But race does not become a factor within the ICWA until placement becomes an issue. Where the child is first given to a member of the extended family, second to a member of the child’s tribe, and thirdly to another Indian family if the first two options are unavailable. Nowhere does it express an interest within the text for anything other than tribal continuity. This continuity is necessary as the children exist within a culture that is historically theirs regardless of the degree of blood.

No amount of blood would ever deny a Russian born citizen the right to their cultural and historical heritage nor would it be enough to deny a citizen of the UK the right to their heritage. Such historical heritage and cultural history is ingrained in their lived experiences; as well as, the society they were born into. Native American societies aren’t different. We have cultural, historical, and political binding aspects directing our need to participate and be a part of our society. A need destroyed by the flagrant disregard of the ICWA.

America could not legitimately enter the United Kingdom and begin to adopt their children to homes the United Kingdom did not originally approve of in the first place. It would start a war. But the United States takes children on a regular basis from separate and unique cultures regularly. State sanctioned removal (violence). There does exist a financial incentive to remove Native children from their societal homes. These incentives encourage both states and individuals to disregard or scoff at the ICWA’s importance. But such incentives should never be the basis for what is best for the child, the best course for the child should always be to stay within his/her culture and decide for his/herself later in life how (s)he wants to live. Protecting and enforcing the ICWA ensures this. It ensures Native children’s safety.

Timothy Davis is a citizen of the Cherokee Nation. He is currently an undergraduate student studying Political Science with a minor in Economics at Northeastern State of Oklahoma University in Tahlequah, Oklahoma.