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Thursday, July 4, 2024

How to be an Ally? Learn our history!

Photo by Alexey Demidov

Most of the time adoption is viewed as a rescue in a sense. A child in need of a home is given one with a family who will raise that child as their own. That simple story often doesn’t resemble the reality of what adoption can mean for a child or that child’s first mother. That is even more true if a child was a part of a Native American tribe at any time over the history of our country.

The Count 2024

The number of children adopted out of Native American tribes is so unclear that journalist and Native American Adoptee Trace Lara Hentz has embarked on an ambitious plan to get a count of every Native American adoptee she can this year. She tries to explain just how far-flung Native Adoptees can be.

“The United States adoptees, some of them were sent to Canada and some of the Canadian adoptees were sent to the United States, but like the story I published on the American Indian There was a young woman from Canada who was taken to Scotland. I mean, literally, these adoptees are everywhere. I had a friend who found an adoptee in Iceland, So that’s why this count means so much to me. No one has ever published an actual count, one that we can look at and trust. It’s long overdue.” (1)

The Boarding School Nightmare

How did we get here? The tension between America’s original inhabitants and European settlers has been present since before America as a nation existed. Europeans tried to control or destroy the Native population in a variety of ways over the years. It was in the 1800s that they began to take the tribes’ children As Elizabeth Hidalgo Reece so aptly said in her article in Harper’s Bazaar, “The United States figured out a long time ago that it is impossible for a tribal nation to survive without its next generation.” (2) Native children were placed into boarding schools. The language and culture of their tribes of origin were forbidden. Children were dressed in the costumes of traditional European children and taught a whitewashed curriculum. More than 75% of the Native children who were in school at the turn of the century were in these boarding schools. (3) Life in a Native American boarding school wasn’t just harsh in the sense that the children there were deprived of their Native community. These schools were prone to disease outbreaks. Abuse of all kinds was known to plague these schools. The combination of lack of health care and abuse led to the deaths of hundreds of Native children throughout the existence of these schools. The number of dead in America is still not completely known. (4)

The Indian Adoption Project Deception

Even when the boarding school movement began to wind down in the late 1950s to 1960s that didn’t mean that efforts to separate native children from their families using adoption was over. In this period the Indian Adoption Project began. (5)This was another government policy. Rather than shuffling Native children into boarding schools, this policy sought to get them placed into white families. It is said that social workers sometimes came to native homes and just took children without talking to the adults involved. (5)The criteria for taking children was often questionable, but Native people didn’t have the standing to speak up for themselves or their families. As many as ⅓ of Native children during this time were taken from their homes and placed with non-native families. (6) Before better protections were in place it is said that 75-80% of families living on a reservation had lost at least one child to adoption outside of their tribe. 

A Shred of Hope

In 1978, less than 50 years ago, Congress passed the Indian Child Welfare Act. (7). Finally, potentially for the first time in our Country’s history, the voice of Native people pleading for their right to exist was starting to be heard. Common sense minimum standards were set that needed to be met before Native children could be taken from their homes. If children did need to leave their first families this law required that homes within the tribe be sought first, then if one couldn’t be found it mandated that a home be sought in another tribe before any non-native family is found for the children. (8)

Hope Under Attack

Native tribes can’t rest, though. Even as recently as recently as 2023 the Supreme Court weighed in on a case that may have meant that the ICWA was pronounced unconstitutional. In this case, a white family adopted a Navaho boy. The Navaho tribe stepped up, requesting that the boy be placed with a Navaho family. One of the arguments made in the case was that the white family was being discriminated against based on race. The tribe argued that tribal memberships were a citizenship designation and not a race. In the end, the ICWA was preserved. (9)

Children from Native tribes do sometimes legitimately need to be placed outside of their homes. When they do, compliance with the ICWA isn’t always followed as well as it should be. Part of the reason might be that those involved in the placement might not understand fully what is at stake (10) People, social workers especially, need to comprehend the importance of preserving Native tribes by making sure the children of tribes are immersed as fully as possible in their birth culture.

Trust the Tribes to Look out for Their Children

As much as non-Native families want to help the children of Native tribes, their place may not be to care for Native children themselves. Non-Native placements are looked at as a last resort by the ICWA after extended family, or Native American foster homes, whether those are within the child’s tribe or from another tribe. (11)

If we look back over the history of the Native people in America and the many attempts that this country has made to extinguish them and their culture, it starts to make sense that placing a Native child anywhere they cannot easily access their tribe and culture is much more than an inconvenience. Making sure Native children know their heritage can in some ways mean the life or death of their tribe and the tribe’s unique ways. (12)

When Being an Ally Means Staying on the Outside.

Knowledge of the history of this issue is necessary to be a true ally of Native people today. Making sure a child is in a safe home is necessary, but when we understand how the future of Native tribes rely on the ability to pass their culture and language down to the children of that tribe, that should change how non-Natives support them. We should be striving to support keeping children within their culture rather than separating them. 


  1. Spiering, Charlyn. “Trace Lara Hentz Talks About the Importance of “The Count 2024” to Native American Adoptees Everywhere.” Adoption Uncovered, 7 Feb. 2024,
  2. Hidalgo Reese, Elizabeth. “The Long History of Native American Adoptions.” Harper’s Bazaar, Hearst, 30 Nov. 2022,
  3. Abrams, Abigail. “The Fight Over Native American Adoptions Is About More Than Just the Children.” Time, 2 July 2019, .
  4. Little, Becky. “Government Boarding Schools Once Separated Native American Children From Families.”, 10 July 2023,  .
  5. Randhawa, PJ. “‘Indian orphan nobody wanted gets parents’: The dark history of the Indian Adoption Project.”, 23 June 2023, .
  6. Kaur, Harmeet. “Should Native Americans get preference over White people in adopting Native children? The Supreme Court may decide.”, 13 Nov. 2022, .
  7. “ICWA History and Purpose.”,,placed%20in%20non%2DIndian%20families.
  8. “About ICWA.”, .
  9. “ICWA RULED CONSTITUTIONAL BY U.S. SUPREME COURT.”, 30 Aug. 2023,,vote%2C%20June%2015%2C%202023. .
  10. Kraker, Dan. “Heart work: Training social workers to keep Native children home.”, 12 June 2023, .
  11. “Topic 16.Placement.”, .
  12. “Identity Crisis: Tribal Nonenrollment & Its Consequences for Children.”, .


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