“But honoring tribal sovereignty isn’t about discrimination or race. That’s a fundamental misunderstanding of Indigenous rights,” Ciesemier said in an episode meant to draw attention to what’s at stake for Native children.
Jaimie Nelson, a Choinumni Yokuts man from Fresno, California, was once one of those children. He detailed on the podcast abuse he encountered at the hands of a white family who adopted him. For Nelson, legal experts, and activists, the Supreme Court challenge is an outgrowth of an intentional and systematic effort to whitewash Native Americans.
"I am not a victim of some odd set of circumstances where I lost my sister and my brother," Nelson said. "It was an intentional act built around ‘Kill the Indian, Save the Man.’"
Nelson referenced words uttered in 1892 by racist American Army Capt. Richard Henry Pratt. He tried, along with the federal government, to strip Native Americans of their beliefs, cultural histories, and traditions. And though Pratt made the speech 130 years ago, the sentiment he championed is far from extinguished.
Nelson said eliminating the very constitutional right that attempts to protect Native children from such cultural atrocities is “a genocidal act.” And he would know exactly what that feels like, because it was attempted on him.
Nelson told the ACLU of his adoption:
There’s a lot of muddy water in there. I know that it happened at a very young age in the late seventies. My biological parents, they were, my mom was either addicted to drugs, my dad was a pretty bad dude. But it didn’t mean that they had to take us away from our native family. Our native family wanted to keep us, but the courts indicated, essentially that there’s nothing you can do about it. They specifically told my grandmother that there’s nothing that you can do about it. And from what I understand, from what I was told, it destroyed her that she was not able to keep us in the home. I don’t have very many memories of my of my time in the foster care system or any of the sort of lead up to the adoption. What I do have, I have physical reminders of my introduction into the system. I have a tracheotomy scar on my neck and on my sides from apparently when I was abused, like immediately after being taken from my Native family.
Nelson said when he learned of the case that will be before the Supreme Court, he knew he had to do something "because there cannot be another Jamie."
"There cannot be another child that is taken away because of some archaic, just genocidal, bigoted ideas," he said. "It’s unbelievable. It’s unconscionable to me that we still have to go through these hurdles, but we do."
Dr. Twyla Baker, president of the Nueta Hidatsa Sahnish College, tweeted about the case five days before Native American Heritage Month began today. "The thing I can’t get off my mind—it’s about to be Native American Heritage Month, as SCOTUS is about to hear a case that has the potential to knock down the Indian Child Welfare Act," Baker said in the tweet. "This kind of existential dichotomy pops up way too often for Native people here."
She later added:
“My bad, actually this didn’t ‘pop up’—it was a situation crafted, intentionally, over years with much larger implications and intentions to follow. Superficial acknowledgments of our humanity as other structures work to dismantle our Native Nationhood is really pretty standard.”
Stephanie Amiotte, a member of the Oglala Lakota Tribe and legal director for the ACLU of South Dakota, North Dakota, and Wyoming, said when the Indian Child Welfare Act was proposed, 25 to 35% of American Indian children were being raised in adoptive or foster homes or other institutions. About 90% of Indigenous children were being raised by people who were not Indigenous, Amiotte said.
She explained that, historically, the federal government’s position and policy has been “to remove Indian children from their families in an attempt to assimilate” them “to white dominant culture.”
“It is something that actually threatens the very existence of future tribes and Indigenous peoples as a population,” Amiotte said.