Clarisse and Pat Harris are in their 70s. They live in a white house on a hill in Ethete, Wyoming, with the seven children they are raising. In the courtyard, there is a chicken coop, a sweat lodge and a view of two snow-capped mountain ranges: the Wind River to the west and the Owl Creek to the north.

Inside, one school night before Halloween, Clarisse is frying hamburger meat and potatoes for dinner while the children carve pumpkins at a long table in the family room.

“OK, has everyone done their pumpkins? Pick up those seeds and put them in the pot?” she shouts from the kitchen.

Not enough. The 5-year-old has drawn triangular eyes and a toothy smile on her own, but she is waiting for help from the teenagers, who are huddled around a smartphone watching YouTube videos. Some of the younger boys are outside shooting hoops and riding bikes down the dusty driveway.

Clarisse’s 14-year-old autistic daughter walks into the kitchen with a request.

“Ghostbuster costume,” he says, but Clarisse has her hands full cooking dinner. “Mhm,” she said. “Talk to Ty.”

Ty, who is 18 years old and just home from a day at community college, helps track down the costume online. He is worried about the other 14-year-old boy who fell and injured himself at school.

“How is his arm?” Ty asks Clarisse, who shakes her head. “They think it’s broken. We have to go to Lander tomorrow.

Before the night is over, Clarisse will mediate an argument over which pumpkin belongs to which boy, convince the seven children to have a salad with their dinner, and give one of her sons a haircut.

This chaos is comfortable and familiar, she says. She has been a foster mother for 40 years and was raised in foster care herself.

“What kind of Indian are you?” »

Clarisse is Northern Paiute from the Big Pine Reservation in California. Growing up, she and her five siblings didn’t know it.

“We knew we were Indians,” she says, because that’s how people in town and at church talked about them. “We didn’t know we were members of a tribe.”

The siblings never lived more than 60 miles from Big Pine, but their identities never appeared in the white homes where they grew up. Clarisse recalls a time when their adoptive parents took them to visit Bakersfield, California.

“They had a little grocery store on the corner, and my brothers were there. The butcher asked my older brother, “Well, what kind of Indian are you?” And he didn’t know. He said he didn’t know. And my younger brother said, ‘Johnny! You know we are Apaches! »

Clarisse laughs as she shares this story – she thinks her brother must have watched “Bonanza” too much. But what she and her siblings experienced was part of what Congress once called “the most tragic and destructive aspect of American Indian life today”: the systematic displacement of children. natives to assimilationist boarding schools and non-native foster and adoption homes.

In 1978, the Indian Child Welfare Act sought to remedy this history of cultural dispossession. Federal law gives tribal nations a voice in custody proceedings involving Indigenous children and prioritizes the families and communities of those children for foster and adoption placements.

Clarisse Harris as a child. (Courtesy of Harris)

At the time of ICWA’s death, Clarisse had long since left the foster home and entered a government native resettlement program, which took her to San Jose, California. City life wasn’t for her, so Clarisse found her way back to Big Pine and reconnected with her birth family. She stopped going to church and started going to the ceremony.

“It felt like I just accepted it. It was part of me,” Clarisse said. “It was different, but it wasn’t weird. It made me feel safe and good. And to this day, that’s who I am.

And how she and her husband, Pat – who is from North Arapaho – have since raised their three biological daughters and dozens of adopted Native children on the Wind River Indian Reservation in Wyoming. But ICWA – the law that facilitated these placements – is in jeopardy.

The general impact of the cancellation of the ICWA

The ICWA challengers are non-Indigenous couples who say the law puts them “last in line” to adopt Indigenous children and unfairly discriminates on the basis of race. Elizabeth Hidalgo Reese, a professor at Stanford Law School and a citizen of Nambé Pueblo, called the argument “unmoored” to the history of tribal nations in that country.

“It puts tribal governments in the position to do basic education,” Reese said. “When people are registered in an Indian tribe, we are not talking about the descendants of a racial group. We are talking about the people who make up the citizens of a dependent nation within.

This distinction has been upheld by more than a century of Supreme Court precedents and serves as the basis for a body of federal law and policy that protects the authority of tribes to govern themselves.

“It’s extremely important that tribes be considered nations and not races,” Reese said.

According to her, the ICWA is unlikely to emerge unscathed from this challenge, and there are a number of ways the court could weaken the law or strike it down. A narrow finding that the ICWA unconstitutionally requires state governments to enforce federal law would be less devastating to tribal nations than a full repeal on the grounds of equal protection.

“If the decision is about how the tribes are no longer sovereign, then that’s it,” said Matthew Fletcher, a professor at the University of Michigan Law School and a citizen of Ottawa’s Grand Traverse Band. and Chippewa Indians.

That kind of broad ruling would cast a shadow over every corner of Indian federal law, Fletcher said — including policies that help tribal nations generate revenue and promote healthy economies.

“Half of Indian business is rooted in the proposition that tribes don’t have a tax base, so they have to make money from corporations to fund their governments and their services,” Fletcher said. “All of this is in danger.”

Take the example of India’s Gaming Regulation Act. Since 1988, it has regulated and protected the right of tribes to manage certain gaming operations on their lands and to enter into gaming pacts with surrounding states. If the ICWA is struck down on equal protection grounds, legal challenges to the law could gain traction.

“Funding from the federal government, federal contracts set aside for Alaska Native corporations and other tribal corporations — all of that could go away,” Fletcher said. “It would really put a damper on a lot of the things the tribes do that they depend on to grow their economies.”

Bracken c. Haaland, as the Supreme Court case calls it, poses a threat to tribal sovereignty itself. With the stakes so high and far-reaching, the law itself and the dark history it was meant to rectify could be overshadowed as the court considers this case, Reese said.

“Part of what’s so brutal is that [ICWA] has done powerful work to ensure that Indigenous people have a connection to their identity and are not denied the right to grow up as they are,” she said. “It will feel, unfortunately, I think, very far in the pleadings.”

“This is who we are”

Clarisse Harris did not lose sight of ICWA’s original intent. Without it, she said, Indigenous children could find themselves far from home without meaningful connections to their Indigenous families, communities and cultures.

Clarisse introduces Ty to her new little brother.
Clarisse Harris introduces her son Ty to her new baby brother in a photo taken over a decade ago. (Courtesy of Harris)

In some ways, Clarisse’s house in Ethete reminds her of the ones she grew up in: always crowded and noisy with children laughing, quarreling or playing. One difference is that his children do not question their Northern Arapaho identity.

At home, they are surrounded by native family. They go to school on the reserve. Free time is spent visiting the tribe’s buffalo herd or making popcorn balls to sell at the Wind River Farmer’s Market or preparing for the ceremony.

“You should see when everyone’s there, like when you’re sweating,” Clarisse says.

She asks her 12-year-old son, who is waiting for the cookies to come out of the oven: “What do we do when we sweat?” »

“We pray,” he replies. “Yes, we do,” Clarisse says. “And for whom do we pray?

He names siblings, aunts, uncles, and cousins ​​who welcomed him into this family as a child. Clarisse reminds him to include some of the birth parents of his siblings who are in treatment or incarcerated. Another of his sons learns from Pat how to sing sweaty Arapaho prayer songs.

“My little boy, he said, ‘Mom, I’m going to sweat it tonight and I’m going to sing.’ And I say, ‘Okay.’ And he does. There’s his little drum right there,” she said, pointing to the hand drum hanging on the wall next to the paper plates and pictures of the Little League team. is who we are.”

Clarisse had to fight for this sense of belonging. For the kids she’s raising, it’s been there from the start.

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