The Potluck

Bill codifying Indian Child Welfare Act language into state law heads to Walz’s desk

By: - March 9, 2023 8:57 pm

Three Native American House members, Rep. Heather Keeler, DFL-Moorhead, (right), Rep. Alicia Kozlowski, DFL-Duluth, and Rep. Jamie Becker-Finn, DFL-Roseville, spoke on the House floor on Thursday, March 9. Photo by Michelle Griffith/Minnesota Reformer.

A bill aimed at keeping Native American children within the foster care system in Native American homes will now go to Gov. Tim Walz’s desk to be signed into law after the House passed it on Thursday.

The legislation is well-timed — the U.S. Supreme Court appears likely to overturn identical federal laws. The House passed the bill 128-0, with six members not voting.

The Indian Child Welfare Act of 1978 established minimum standards for the removal of Native American children from their homes. The law also prioritized placing children into homes of extended family members and other tribal homes — places that could reflect the values of Native American culture.

ICWA was enacted following a century-long campaign by the federal government of forcibly removing Native children from their homes and placing them in boarding schools and white adoptive families. The mission was to assimilate Native children into the white American mainstream — or “kill the Indian in him, save the man,” as the founder of the first boarding school infamously said.

The U.S. Supreme Court in November heard a case, Brakeen v. Haaland, which argues ICWA discriminates against non-Native families because of their race. ICWA proponents argue tribal citizenship is a political — not racial — category.

The conservative justices, including Chief Justice John Roberts and Justice Amy Coney Barrett — who are both adoptive parents — appeared skeptical of the law.

It’s not clear what would happen in Minnesota — which has its own Indian Family Preservation Act — if the U.S. Supreme Court overturns ICWA. It could face its own court challenge. 

The Minnesota Indian Family Preservation Act was adopted in 1985 as a supplement to ICWA. The bill passed in the House on Thursday (SF667) would add language — like definitions and required processes — to strengthen the state law to include ICWA language. 

Rep. Heather Keeler, DFL-Moorhead, said that Minnesota lawmakers were doing the right thing by passing the provisions that the federal government appears likely to dissolve. Keeler is an enrolled member of the Yankton Sioux Tribe. Many spectators and House members themselves wore orange clothing to Thursday’s floor session, as orange has come to symbolize raising awareness of the legacy of Native American boarding schools. 

Keeler drew criticism recently for saying on Facebook that she was “sick of white Christians adopting our babies and rejoicing.” She later apologized, saying her comments “distracted from what matters most — protecting our kids, protecting our culture, and working to make the best Minnesota possible.” 

“Other people have been attempting to exterminate us for generations, but the fact that we keep showing up in these spaces is an act of resiliency,” Keeler said in a statement. “We’ve overcome decades of harm aimed at our community through our children. What this bill does is continue to protect Indigenous children, so they continue to have a lifeline to their culture.”

The Senate last month passed the bill 66-1, with Sen. Steve Drazkowski, R-Mazeppa, the lone dissenting vote.

Rep. Walter Hudson, R-Albertville, said on the floor that he supported the bill and today went to Target to purchase “the only orange article of men’s clothing I could find.”

“It (the bill) ensures potential for the integrity of culture and the transmission of identity and values,” Hudson said. “I don’t know that I know anybody in my life, anybody in my circle, that is going to be directly impacted by this. But I’m glad that people will be.”

Spectators cheered after the vote was called, and Rep. Alicia Kozlowski, a Duluth Democrat who is Ojibwe and Mexican, went up to the front of the room and hugged other members while cheering and dancing.

Lt. Gov Peggy Flanagan, who served in the House between 2015-2018, and Sen. Mary Kunesh, DFL-New Brighton, appeared briefly on the House floor to greet members during discussion for the bill. Kunesh is the bill’s chief author.

“I am grateful to all my colleagues in the Legislature for passing this bill, which will protect Native families and help tribes, counties, and government agencies and prevent the removal and disconnection of Indian children from their families, culture, and tribes,” Kunesh said in a statement.

Correction: A previous version of this story incorrectly stated the number of House members. There are 134 members of the House.

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Michelle Griffith
Michelle Griffith

Michelle Griffith covers Minnesota politics and policy for the Reformer, with a focus on marginalized communities. Most recently she was a reporter with The Forum of Fargo-Moorhead in North Dakota where she covered state and local government and Indigenous issues.