A panel discussed the history and impact of the Indian Child Welfare Act — which faces a challenge in the U.S. Supreme Court — at a Harvard Institute of Politics Forum on Monday evening.
The Supreme Court is set to hear a case Wednesday against the ICWA, a 1978 law regulating the foster care and adoption systems for Native American children to prioritize placement with relatives or other Native American households. The challenge to the law originated from a Texas adoption case and questions the constitutionality of the ICWA.
Ryan H. Doan-Nguyen ’25 began the event with a land acknowledgment, recognizing that Harvard University was built on the ancestral land of the Massachusett people and neighbors the lands of the Wampanoag and Nipmuc peoples.
The forum included a screening of the short film “First Light,” which details the forced removal of Indigenous children from their families and their placement into white households.
After the film’s conclusion, a panel of indigenous rights organizers and experts — featuring April Fournier, Sandy White Hawk, Judith LeBlanc, Mishy Lesser, and Chris Newell — discussed the ICWA, contextualizing the policy’s history and defending its importance in the healing process of Indigenous people.
Fournier, program manager at Advance Native Political Leadership, drew from her family’s experience with forced adoption, describing how her mother “lost her culture and lost her access to her family for more than 30 years” after being taken from her sick parent.
Fournier, who is Diné, said her mother “would have been able to keep that relationship instead of trying to overcome the trauma that she did for all of those years” if she had been placed with a relative or Native American family, as she would have under ICWA.
“As soon as we hear this challenge to this law that has helped many families, that sounds all the alarm bells,” Fournier said.
Lesser — learning director of the Upstander Project, the organization that created "First Light" — said the ICWA was sparked by a movement of Native American family members feeling the loss of their loved ones.
“It was born out of women, mostly — aunties, grandmothers, mothers, sisters — sharing the agony of having their children taken from them,” Lesser said. “It wasn’t born in the Senate.”
In the face of a Supreme Court decision potentially striking down ICWA, Fournier highlighted the importance of having Indigenous people in elected positions of power.
“If we can’t rely on the federal courts, we know that we also need to have local elected officials,” she said. “The only way that we’re going to have a voice in Congress is if we learn how to run for office because the system wasn’t built for us.”
Newell, who is Passamaquoddy, mourned the potential loss of the ICWA.
“If we were to have a Supreme Court that will do this, they go against history, they go against precedent,” Newell said. “They undo a whole lot of things, and it destroys a future for my children and their children going forward.”
—Staff writer Claire Yuan can be reached at email@example.com. Follow her on Twitter @claireyuan33.