Despite Supreme Court ruling, ICWA challenges remain

The nation’s highest court recently upheld the Indian Child Welfare Act in a major case over the law’s constitutionality, a decision hailed by many as a victory for Indigenous children and their families.

But while the 7-2 majority decision in the Brackeen v. Haaland case firmly rejected key arguments against the law known as ICWA, state-level challenges have been moving through lower courts across the country, with varying degrees of success.

Cases in Nebraska, Alaska, Iowa, Montana and Oklahoma center on different legal issues than those decided by the U.S. Supreme Court last month. Plaintiffs in Brackeen v. Haaland — a group of states along with white adoptive parents seeking custody of Native children — argued unsuccessfully that ICWA was unconstitutional because it exceeds the “plenary powers” of Congress to pass legislation governing tribal affairs, “commandeers” states to follow federal law and violates equal protection guarantees.

Yet while the Supreme Court upheld ICWA’s constitutionality for now, legal experts who are both supporters and critics of the 45-year-old federal law say the Brackeen case doesn’t rule out future challenges to tribal sovereignty.

What’s more, justices declined to delve into the equal protection arguments in the case, stating only that the plaintiffs “lack standing” on that issue because the adoptions of Indigenous children they sought had been finalized. Some court watchers say that leaves open the possibility of future lawsuits on equal protection issues.

The 1978 law in question seeks to repair damage caused by centuries of forced attendance at Indian boarding schools and coercive adoptions into white, Christian homes. That legacy has endured in Indian Country, where the rate of foster care removals remains far higher than in other racial and ethnic communities.

Under ICWA, state child welfare agencies must determine whether a child facing foster care, adoption or guardianship is a member of a Native American tribe. If they are an enrolled member or have a parent who is enrolled and are eligible for tribal membership, the case takes a different pathway than for other children. Tribes must be offered the opportunity to take jurisdiction from the state court; tribal members and Indigenous foster parents and kin must be prioritized for placements; and social service agencies must make “active” rather than “reasonable” efforts to help parents accused of maltreatment reunite with their children.

Kate Fort, director of the Indian Law Clinic at Michigan State University College of Law, outlined the most common reasons for an ICWA appeal in the March edition of the Juvenile and Family Court Journal.

She wrote that between 2017 and 2022, more than 40 percent of all such cases were remanded — sent back to lower courts — or reversed. Plaintiffs in 87 percent of the ICWA-based appeals were biological parents of an Indigenous child. About half the cases were appealed based on parents’ belief that the court improperly determined ICWA’s application to their child’s case.

“These data indicate that agencies and courts are still struggling with the first step in an ICWA case — whether they have an ICWA case at all,” Fort wrote in the paper.

Two ICWA-related cases were decided by the Alaska Supreme Court in July 2022.

They involved the federal law’s provision requiring that a “qualified expert witness” testify about the Indigenous child’s tribe, customs and traditions before their parent’s rights can be terminated. Those challenges did not prevail.

Recent disputes over ICWA in state courts center on tribal jurisdiction, the definition of a Native child, and termination of parental rights, among other issues. The following is a summary of some recent cases:


Tribal court jurisdiction in child welfare cases lost ground in an April ruling in Oklahoma. In the decision — involving a child identified as S.J.W. — the state Supreme Court gave lower courts increased ability to grant custody of Native children living on a reservation that is not their own.

S.J.W.’s parents argued that “the Chickasaw tribal court has exclusive jurisdiction regardless of the fact that S.J.W. is a nonmember Indian child,” according to court documents. The state maintained it had shared jurisdiction on cases involving ICWA.

Critics call the ruling involving a Muscogee child living on Chickasaw Nation’s reservation deeply flawed.

The state Supreme Court “misunderstands tribal sovereignty,” the Choctaw Nation’s senior executive officer of legal and compliance Brian Danker told a National Public Radio affiliate. “This ruling could impact a tribe’s ability to protect tribal citizens’ social, cultural and familial connections as it attempts to chip away at the foundations of tribal sovereignty in the state of Oklahoma.”

Fort described the Oklahoma ICWA case as unique, and a “truly unfortunate opinion with absurdly weak analysis.” Fort said tribes’ ability to retain jurisdiction over child welfare cases remains an ongoing fight in multiple states.

Iowa and Nebraska

In another suit filed this past April by the Red Lake Band of Chippewa Indians, the Supreme Court in Nebraska denied the tribe’s request to intervene, because it had previously been determined the child in question did not meet the criteria of an “Indian child.” The child’s mother was eligible for tribal enrollment, but was not yet enrolled.

The tribe argued the spirit of ICWA should apply to the case, but the state of Nebraska opposed that position, and was victorious in court. Ultimately, the state’s highest court ruled that ICWA’s specific requirements to determine a child’s eligibility for its protections should be strictly applied.

In April 2022, the Iowa Supreme Court upheld a juvenile court’s ruling that denied a child ICWA protections, affirming a prior decision to terminate the rights of the child’s parent. The juvenile court found the state’s “reasonable efforts” to avoid out-of-home placement — instead of the “active efforts” required for tribal members under ICWA — were adequate because the child was deemed to be non-Native.


ICWA was affirmed in a Montana case decided by the state Supreme Court in January, a ruling that underscored how the federal law applies to guardianships and third-party custody proceedings, in addition to adoption and foster care cases.

The child’s mother, an enrolled member of the Native Village of Kotzebue Tribe in Alaska, provided the court with verification that her three children were eligible for ICWA protections. She asked the courts to remove her children from the Montana home of their paternal grandparents — who had full custodial rights — and restore her custody. The case was sent back to lower courts for further proceedings to determine if the children should be returned to their mother.


Nearly two weeks after the Brackeen decision in mid-June, the U.S. Supreme Court denied review of a recent Minnesota case making a related equal protection argument — that ICWA discriminates against non-Native foster and adoptive parents.

In March 2022, Hennepin County was sued by two Indigenous foster parents who were unsuccessful in the adoption of the Indigenous child they were fostering. Instead, the child’s tribe, Red Lake Band of Chippewa, took over the proceedings and granted custody to the child’s maternal grandmother. The foster parents were considered “nonmembers” in the ICWA case, because one is enrolled in the Bois Forte Band of Chippewa and the other is a White Earth Nation descendant.

The plaintiffs in the case — who, under ICWA, lost priority in their adoption efforts in favor of the child’s relative despite having adopted the child’s siblings — were represented by Minnetonka attorney Mark Fiddler, a member of the Turtle Mountain Band of Chippewa Indians. He also represented the white adoptive couples seeking to overturn ICWA in Brackeen v. Haaland. The conservative Goldwater Institute filed amicus briefs in both cases, challenging ICWA’s constitutionality.

In an email, Fiddler said that while the institute attacked ICWA as unconstitutional, the plaintiffs did not. “Rather, they argued ICWA could and should be interpreted to be constitutional by not forcing nonmembers into a jurisdiction foreign to them,” he said.

“Petitioners were improperly subjected to the personal and subject matter jurisdiction of a state foreign to them, one where they have no right to vote,” plaintiffs stated in Denise Halvorson v. Hennepin County Children’s Services Department case documents. As a result, the lower court violated “their due process rights to fundamental fairness and equal protection.”

But the petition to the U.S. Supreme Court was denied on June 26.

Fiddler said despite the high court upholding ICWA in Brackeen and its denial of the Hennepin County case, establishing standing in an equal protection case against ICWA “would be easy,” and he fully expects continued challenges to the law on this issue and others.

“Any foster or adoptive parent would have the right to move to strike down ICWA in state court, so long as he or she was jeopardized by it somehow,” Fiddler stated shortly after the Brackeen decision.

The Imprint is a non-profit, non-partisan news publication dedicated to reporting on child welfare.

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Supreme Court rejects Navajo Nation’s water rights trust claim

The U.S. Supreme Court said the United States is not required “to take affirmative steps to secure water for the Tribe” because that provision is not explicitly stated in the Navajo Treaty of 1868, according to its ruling in a 5-4 vote in Arizona v. Navajo Nation, released Thursday.

The case was the third and final federal Indian law case this term.

Thursday’s decision reverses a ruling by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit. The tribe cannot proceed with a claim against the Department of the Interior to “develop a plan to meet the Navajo Nation’s water needs and manage the main stream of the Colorado River in the Lower Basin.”

The court also ruled that the tribe cannot present a cognizable claim of breach of trust.

Justice Brett Kavanaugh wrote the opinion and was joined by Chief Justice John Roberts and Justices Clarence Thomas, Samuel Alito and Amy Coney Barrett.

“And it is not the Judiciary’s role to rewrite and update this 155-year-old treaty,” Kavanaugh wrote. “Rather, Congress and the President may enact—and often have enacted—laws to assist the citizens of the western United States, including the Navajos, with their water needs.

Kavanaugh went on to write that the United States has no similar duty with respect to land on the reservation and it would be “anomalous to conclude that the United States must take affirmative steps to secure water.”

“For example, under the treaty, the United States has no duty to farm the land, mine the minerals, or harvest the timber on the reservation—or, for that matter, to build roads and bridges on the reservation,” Kavanaugh writes. “Just as there is no such duty with respect to the land, there likewise is no such duty with respect to the water.”

The Navajo Nation argued that securing water rights to the Colorado River for the tribe fell under the federal government’s trust obligations that were being unfulfilled.

Critics immediately reacted to the decision saying it is a virtual theft of water from the Navajo Nation.

Navajo Nation President Buu Nygren and Speaker of the 25th Navajo Nation Council Crystalyne Curley shared their disappointment in the decision in a joint press release.

As president, Nygren said it is his job to protect the people, land and future and that he remains “undeterred in obtaining quantified water rights for the Navajo Nation in Arizona.”

“The only way to do that is with secure, quantified water rights to the Lower Basin of the Colorado River,” Nygren said in the statement. “I am confident that we will be able to achieve a settlement promptly and ensure the health and safety of my people.”

“Today’s ruling will not deter the Navajo Nation from securing the water that our ancestors sacrificed and fought for — our right to life and the livelihood of future generations,” Curley added.

As he has done in the past, Justice Neil Gorsuch laid out the history of the tribe and the surrounding circumstances that led to this point in his dissenting opinion. He writes that it is known that the United States holds some of the tribe’s water rights in trust and the government owes the Navajo Nation “a duty to manage the water it holds for the Tribe in a legally responsible manner.”

In his concluding paragraphs, Gorsuch writes that the tribe has tried nearly everything and poses the question, “Where do the Navajo go from here?”

“The Navajo have waited patiently for someone, anyone, to help them, only to be told (repeatedly) that they have been standing in the wrong line and must try another. To this day, the United States has never denied that the Navajo may have water rights in the mainstream of the Colorado River (and perhaps elsewhere) that it holds in trust for the Tribe,” Gorsuch writes. “Instead, the government’s constant refrain is that the Navajo can have all they ask for; they just need to go somewhere else and do something else first.”

Derrick Beetso, Navajo, is an attorney and director of Indian Gaming and Self-Governance at Arizona State University Sandra Day O’Connor College of Law. He also is a board member of IndiJ Public Media, the non-profit that owns ICT.

He said the opinion acknowledges that the tribe does have water rights, although they are unquantified.

“The tribe itself is pretty much in the same position they were in before this litigation and in some respects has to go back to the drawing board to figure out how they can get the administration to move forward on assessing their water needs,” Beetso told ICT.

He added that the Supreme Court is just one branch of the government and the Navajo Nation may switch focus to the Biden Administration and Congress in the future.

“The administration can do all the things that the tribe’s asking them to do without a court telling them to do it,” he said. “And so I think the Navajo Nation can shift gears and put a lot of pressure on the Biden administration and see what can get done under this administration.”

Native American Rights Fund executive director John Echohawk, Pawnee, said in a joining statement with the National Congress of American Indians that the decision condones a lack of accountability by the U.S. government.

“Despite today’s ruling, Tribal Nations will continue to assert their water rights and NARF remains committed to that fight,” Echohawk said.

Fawn Sharp, Quinault, called the decision a setback but added tribes and Native organizations will continue to fight for and defend tribal sovereignty and the preservation of Indigenous ways of life.

“Water is necessary for all life, and when our ancestors negotiated agreements with the United States to secure our lands and our protection, water was understood and still is understood to be inseparable from the land and from our peoples,” Sharp said in the statement. “Today, the Supreme Court has once again assisted in the United States’ centuries-long attempts to try to get out of the promises they have made to Tribal Nations by stating that treaties only secure access to water, but do not require the United States to take any steps to protect or provide that water to our people.”

The court ruled in mid-June on the other two federal Indian law cases. The high court affirmed the Indian Child Welfare Act in a major win that was celebrated across Indian Country. The same day the ICWA opinion was released, the court also ruled on Lac du Flambeau Band of Lake Superior Chippewa Indians v. Coughlin.

In that ruling, the court stated that tribes cannot use sovereign immunity in Bankruptcy Court.

The court still has a number of cases to rule on before taking a summer break. The justices will return for the next term starting in October.

The opinion on Arizona v. Navajo Nation can be read here.

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Supreme Court: Tribal sovereign immunity doesn’t extend to bankruptcy court

The U.S. Supreme Court ruled Thursday morning that tribes are like any other state or government and cannot use sovereign immunity in Bankruptcy Court.

The ruling derails an argument made by the Lac du Flambeau Band of Lake Superior Chippewa Indians, which tried to extend the reach of tribal sovereign immunity in bankruptcy proceedings.

“The Code unequivocally abrogates the sovereign immunity of all governments, categorically. Tribes are indisputably governments. Therefore, unmistakably abrogates their sovereign immunity too,” Justice Ketanji Brown Jackson said in the opinion of the court.

Sovereign immunity is a legal doctrine that basically means a government cannot be sued unless it wants to.

Last year, the Supreme Court reviewed Lac du Flambeau Band of Lake Superior Chippewa Indians v. Coughlin, which was to determine if tribal governments fall under the bankruptcy code’s definition of governments that possess the power of sovereign immunity.

“I know the other side saying, ‘Well, Mike, now tribes are aligned with all the municipalities.’ But it doesn’t say that,” said Mike Andrews, former staff director and chief council for the Senate Indian Affairs Committee. “Just as Justice (Neil) Gorsuch said they moved tribes into foreign governments and quite frankly, we’re not. We’re tribal governments and we were here before the United States. So, (it’s) a little disingenuous, to be perfectly honest.”

Andrews added this ruling is a slippery slope and could bring forward more cases to the Supreme Court that shouldn’t be decided by the courts.

“I thought that the Supreme Court stepped in as the legislature,” he said to ICT. “You often hear about justices legislating from the bench.”

Andrews was disappointed in the ruling because the Supreme Court should have sent this issue to Congress to decide.

“Let’s be clear, it’s not like the court’s going to go out and do a consultation. No, they’re not,” Andrews said.

One form or another of the Bankruptcy Act has existed since 1800. There have been five different Bankruptcy Acts passed since its first iteration. There have been over 40 amendments made to the act.

“There’s been 46, 47 amendments to the Bankruptcy Act and not one person decided, ‘Oh, we should add tribes.’ Maybe there’s a reason for that,” Andrews said. “I think that’s up to tribes through the legislative process, not the judicial process to make those determinations. Part of me feels this was a departure in that decision today. I think it was, quite frankly, an infringement on tribal sovereignty. It was watered down today.”

History of the case

After a borrower declares bankruptcy, all creditors, including governments, are not allowed to attempt any debt collection.

The Lac du Flambeau Band of Lake Superior Chippewa Indians owns a payday loan company called Lendgreen. In July 2019, the company lended $1,100 to Brian Coughlin who declared bankruptcy before the loan was repaid.

Despite bankruptcy code, Lendgreen continued to try to collect the debt. In 2019, Coughlin sued Lendgreen and the tribe in Bankruptcy Court to force them to comply with bankruptcy code. He also sued for emotional distress and attorney fees.

The tribe argued they can’t be sued because the bankruptcy code doesn’t explicitly say tribal governments. Instead stating “other foreign or domestic government.” The tribe argued it is neither a foreign or domestic government. So, the bankruptcy code should not apply in this case. Therefore, the tribe can use sovereign immunity in Bankruptcy Court.

This argument leaned on tribal governments’ unique status in the United States.

The Bankruptcy Court agreed with the tribe.

In May 2022, the case went before the First Circuit Court of Appeals, which concluded that tribes cannot use sovereign immunity in Bankruptcy Court.

This has been upheld by the Supreme Court in an 8-1 decision by the justices. The sole dissenting opinion came from Neil Gorsuch, the only justice with extensive knowledge and experience with federal Indian law.

Judge Neil Gorsuch delivers brief remarks after being nominated by President Trump to the Supreme Court in January 2017.

Justice Neil Gorsuch dissents

Gorsuch essentially argued that tribal governments should not be included in the language of “other foreign or domestic government,” saying tribes should be explicitly named in laws to avoid these generalizations.

“Respectfully, I do not think the language here does the trick. The phrase “other foreign or domestic government” could mean what the Court suggests: every government, everywhere,” Gorusch wrote in his dissenting opinion. “But it could also mean what it says: every “other foreign . . . government”; every “other . . . domestic government.” And properly understood, Tribes are neither of those things.”

Gorsuch added these language interpretations should be handled by Congress not the Supreme court.

“All this explains the now-familiar clear-statement rule that this Court has endorsed on countless occasions,” he wrote. “If Congress wishes to abrogate tribal immunity, its “decision must be clear.” And the Legislature must “unequivocally express” its decision in the text of a statute.”

He asserted that tribes are neither foreign or domestic nations, so they shouldn’t fall under that definition.

“Read in context, the term ‘domestic dependent nations’ is really a term of art meant to capture Tribes’ ‘hybrid position’ between ‘foreign and domestic states,’” Gorsuch said.

Later in his opinion he added, “And their unique character makes their brand of sovereign immunity ‘not congruent’ with the immunity other sovereigns enjoy.”

Lac du Flambeau Band of Lake Superior Chippewa Indians v. Coughlin is two of three federal Indian law cases in Supreme Court hands. The decision for Haaland v. Brackeen, an Indian Child Welfare Act case, was also released Thursday. Arizona v. Navajo Nation is the third case to be decided. The high court has 23 more cases to decide on by the end of the month. 

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