Indian Child Welfare Act Conference set for August 9 at Choctaw

August 7, 2023

The eleventh annual Indian Child Welfare Act Conference will be held Aug. 9 at the Silver Star Convention Center at Choctaw.

Department of Child Protection Services workers deliver Thanksgiving meals

Justice Robert Yazzie, Chief Justice Emeritus of the Navajo Nation, will be the keynote speaker. Three renowned jurists and educators recognized as experts in the history and application of the Indian Child Welfare Act will speak in the afternoon.

The conference is hosted by the Mississippi Band of Choctaw Indians in collaboration with the Mississippi Judicial College, the Mississippi Administrative Office of Courts and the state Department of Child Protection Services. The annual conference brings together state and tribal officials, judges, court staff, social workers and other professionals who deal with Native American children in a Youth Court setting to learn about the requirements of the Indian Child Welfare Act.

ICWA sets out federal requirements regarding removal and placement of Native American children in foster or adoptive homes. ICWA aims to preserve tribal culture and safeguard the rights of Native American children to their heritage.

The conference also is an opportunity for all participants to experience tribal culture. The opening ceremony at 8:30 a.m. will include a color guard presentation by the Mississippi Band of Choctaw Indians and the National Anthem sung in the Choctaw language. Tribal Chief Cyrus Ben of the Mississippi Band of Choctaw Indians will welcome conference participants at 9:15 a.m.

Justice Yazzie will give the keynote address at 10 a.m. His presentation is titled “Navajo Peacemaking and ICWA: Indigenous Thinking and Self Determination.”

Professor Wenona Singel, director of the Indigenous Law and Policy Center at Michigan State University College of Law, will speak at 12:50 p.m. about the history of Indian child removal. Her husband and research colleague, Professor Matthew L.M. Fletcher, will speak at 2:35 p.m. about “Lawyering the Indian Child Welfare Act.” Judge Cheryl Demmert Fairbanks is set to speak at 3:35 p.m.

The U.S. Supreme Court most recently interpreted the application of ICWA and affirmed its constitutionality in the June 15, 2023, decision of Haaland v. Brackeen, a case from Texas. Justice Neil Gorsuch in his concurring opinion quoted from Fletcher and Singel’s publications “Lawyering the Indian Child Welfare Act” published in the Michigan Law Review in 2022, and their “Indian Children and the Federal–Tribal Trust Relationship,” published in 2016 in Nebraska Law Review. Justice Clarence Thomas also cited their scholarly work in his dissent.

Their publication “Lawyering the Indian Child Welfare Act” describes “how the statutory structure of child welfare laws enables lawyers and courts to exploit deep-seated stereotypes about American Indian people rooted in systemic racism to undermine the enforcement of the rights of Indian families and tribes.”

Professor Fletcher has taught and written extensively about federal and tribal law. He sits as the Chief Justice of the Pokagon Band of Potawatomi Indians, the Poarch Band of Creek Indians and the Grand Traverse Band of Ottawa and Chippewa Indians. He is an appellate judge for the Cabazon Band of Mission Indians, the Colorado River Indian Tribes, the Hoopa Valley Tribe, the Lower Elwha Klallam Tribe, the Mashpee Wampanoag Tribe, the Match-E-Be-Nash-She-Wish Band of Pottawatomi Indians, the Nottawaseppi Huron Band of Potawatomi Indians, the Rincon Band of Luiseño Indians, the Santee Sioux Tribe of Nebraska and the Tulalip Tribes. He is a member of the Grand Traverse Band. He taught at Michigan State University College of Law 2006-2022, and at the University of North Dakota School of Law 2004-2006. He has been a visiting professor at law schools at the University of Michigan, the University of Arizona, the University of California - Hastings, the University of Montana and Sanford University. He is a graduate of the University of Michigan and the University of Michigan Law School.

Professor Singel has written extensively about tribal sovereignty and indigenous rights. Her work on Indian removal covers the intergenerational impact of removal of Indian children from their families and culture, including her ancestors’ experiences. She is an enrolled member of the Little Traverse Bay Bands of Odawa Indians and she is a descendant of the Little River Band of Ottawa Indians, the Burt Lake Band of Ottawa and Chippewa Indians and the Grand River Bands of Ottawa Indians. She served as Chief Appellate Justice for the Little Traverse Bay Bands of Odawa Indians and Chief Appellate Judge for the Grand Traverse Band of Ottawa and Chippewa Indians. She advised Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer on tribal-state affairs 2019-2021 as deputy legal counsel. She served by appointment of President Barack Obama on the Advisory Board of the Saint Lawrence Seaway Development Corp. 2012-2017. She serves on the National Council of the World Wildlife Fund. She is a graduate of Harvard College and Harvard Law School.

Judge Fairbanks is a tribal appellate court justice and a professor of law. She has taught at the University of New Mexico School of Law, the University of New Mexico’s Southwest Indian Law Clinic and Lewis and Clark College in Portland, Oregon. She also serves as adjunct faculty for the National Judicial College in Reno, Nevada. She served as co- director for the University of New Mexico’s Native American Budget and Policy Institute and worked as senior policy analyst with the New Mexico Office of Indian Affairs in the area of state-tribal relations. She has served as a Justice for the Inter-Tribal Court of Appeals for Nevada, a Code of Federal Regulations Appellate Magistrate and a Justice for the White Earth Band of Chippewa Tribal Court of Appeals. She served as Family Court Judge for Santa Clara Pueblo 1992-1994; Chief Justice of the Yavapai Apache 1995-2005; and Associate Justice of the Saginaw Band of Chippewa Indians. Born in Ketchikan, Alaska, Judge Fairbanks is Tlingit-Tsimpshian. She is a graduate of Fort Lewis College and earned her Juris Doctor from the University of New Mexico. Before pursuing a career in law, she was a teacher and school administrator.

Justice Yazzie is a citizen of and Chief Justice Emeritus of the Navajo Nation. He served as Chief Justice from 1992 through 2003. He practiced law in the Navajo Nation for 16 years, and was a district judge for eight years. He was formerly the Director of the Diné Policy Institute of Diné College, developing policy using authentic Navajo thinking. He is a frequent lecturer on customary law, indigenous rights and traditional governance. He served as a visiting professor at the University of New Mexico School of Law, an adjunct professor of the Department of Criminal Justice of Northern Arizona University, an instructor at Navajo Technical University and a visiting member of the faculty of the National Judicial College. He earned a Bachelor of Arts degree from Oberlin College of Ohio, and a Juris Doctor from the University of New Mexico School of Law.

ICWA dates from 1978, when the U.S. Congress set requirements which apply to state child custody proceedings involving any American Indian child who is a member of or eligible for membership in a federally recognized tribe. ICWA was challenged in a Mississippi adoption case which was decided by the U.S. Supreme Court in 1989. The nation’s highest court interpreted the enforcement of ICWA in the case of Mississippi Band of Choctaw Indians v. Holyfield, which involved the adoption of twins born to members of the Choctaw Tribe. The biological parents agreed to the twins’ adoption by a non-Native American couple. The Mississippi Band of Choctaw Indians moved to vacate the adoption, successfully asserting that the Tribal court had exclusive jurisdiction under ICWA.