Social Work Tribal child welfare practice in the United States
by
Lisa Byers, Dallas Pettigrew
  • LAST MODIFIED: 26 February 2020
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195389678-0283

Introduction

Tribal child welfare in what is now the United States encompasses hundreds of tribal nations engaged in a government-to-government relationship with the United States. Please note that tribal, native, American Indian and Alaska Native, and Native American are used interchangeably. Each tribe has distinct languages and customs. Within this diversity the factors that bind tribal nations to make a discussion of tribal child welfare meaningful are communal childrearing, colonization, trauma, contemporary disparities, sovereign status, and detrimental federal policies. Communal cultures provide children with multiple caregivers that assure the youngest are cared for daily. This web of relations combined with high levels of respect for children within the life cycle guarded against abuse and neglect prior to colonization. The establishment of the United States, and federal-level assimilation policies created immense trauma and cultural disruption for tribal nations and child welfare. Government-funded boarding schools and the practice of placing tribal children in non-native homes are two specific assimilation practices that explicitly targeted children. The ability of tribal nations to protect their children and maintain their cultures has been strengthened by a federal law designed to give tribal nation’s a stake in child welfare proceedings. Many tribes now have their own child welfare programs, courts, and other services. State compliance with the law is an ongoing issue. Increased collaboration, respect for the sovereign status of tribes, and evaluation with clear implications for noncompliance needs to ensue are necessary to fully empower tribal child welfare. In addition, truth and reconciliation related to the separation of children from family and culture based on past federal policy practices is necessary to foster communal and generational healing for American Indian and Alaska Native peoples.

General Overviews

Tribal childrearing contrasts starkly with Western ways of raising children. The critical role of community in guiding a child through adolescence is the focus of Markstrom 2008, which contrasts this with Western cultural norms. Byers 2010 overviews the literature regarding communal clan-based childrearing by focusing on the importance of grandparents in the daily care of children. Day 2014 details kin- and clan-based parenting and relational tribal teachings that underlie the value of children as sacred. The enduring importance of a communal focus is within the review of the existing articles related to culturally based practice with tribal children provided by Haight, et al. 2018. George 1997 provides an in-depth analysis of the ideological clash between tribal nations and American officials. Bearse 2013 deepens our understanding of ideological implications by detailing US assimilation practices toward tribal children. Boarding schools and the Indian Adoption Project (IAP) disrupted traditional child welfare. Boarding school officials forbade tribal languages and religions, and children were given American names. Children also endured neglect and physical and sexual abuse. Some boarding school survivors proved resilient and returned home to be enfolded back into the culture. Many others faced marginalization upon return, based on the lack of tribal enculturation during their critical developmental years. Lomawaima 1994 provides one of the earliest accounts of boarding school life through interviews with alumni from Chilloco. One gains a sense of daily life and the resistance many tribal children displayed by retaining their languages and spirituality. The traumatic federal pattern of child removal was repeated between the 1950s and 1970s as tribal nations endured 25–35 percent of children being in out of home placements, facilitated by the Indian Adoption Project. Case reviews showed cultural bias was the source for the placements versus neglect or abuse. Jacobs 2013 provides a detailed account of the Indian Adoption Project’s inner workings and philosophies of bias, along with the actions that led to the Indian Child Welfare Act (ICWA). Jacobs 2014 expands the author’s study of the IAP to similar practices in Canada and Australia. Jacobs’s extensive history of the activism that led to the passage of the ICWA is framed against oral histories of families. Reading the words of adults that were removed as children offers an intimate awareness of the traumatic impact and resiliency exemplified in tribal nations, families, and clans. Attean, et al. 2012 focuses on healing these traumas by giving prominence to tribal voices and state accountability.

  • Attean, E. A., P. Burns, M. Proulx, J. Bissonette-Lewey, J. Williams, and K. Deserly. 2012. Truth, healing, systems change: The Maine Wabanaki-State Child Welfare Truth and Reconciliation Commission process. Child Welfare 91.3: 15–30.

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    The article focuses on healing through the inclusion of Wabanaki voices regarding the history and impacts of the disproportionate out-of-home placement of Wabanaki children in Maine. The authors detail the federal and state policy history regarding child welfare systems. This material is particularly useful for those interested in replicating a truth and reconciliation process.

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  • Bearse, M. L. 2013. Native Americans: Practice interventions. In Oxford encyclopedia of social work. Edited by Cynthia Franklin. New York: Oxford Univ. Press.

    DOI: 10.1093/acrefore/9780199975839.013.604Save Citation »Export Citation »

    The author provides an overview of Native American demographics, historical oppression, contemporary disparities, values, and healing practices.

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  • Byers, L. 2010. Native American grandmothers, cultural tradition and contemporary necessity. Journal of Ethnic and Cultural Diversity in Social Work 19:305–316.

    DOI: 10.1080/15313204.2010.523653Save Citation »Export Citation »

    This work reviews the research on traditional childrearing by Native American grandmothers and grandfathers defined by clan membership. Contemporary contexts for grandparent families are also summarized.

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  • Day, P. 2014. Raising healthy American Indian children. In Social issues in contemporary Native America: Reflections from Turtle Island. Edited by H. N. Weaver, 93–111. Burlington, VT: Ashgate.

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    The chapter describes the importance of kinship ties to the transmission of cultural values and the attainment of a healthy ethnic identity for American Indian and Alaska Native children. Traditional tribal teachings of the Anishinaabeg are shared as a demonstration of a relational worldview.

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  • George, L. J. 1997. Why the need for the Indian Child Welfare Act? Journal of Multicultural Social Work 5.3–4: 165–175.

    DOI: 10.1300/J285v05n03_04Save Citation »Export Citation »

    A comprehensive account of the origins and endings of boarding schools and the Indian Adoption Project. The biased values behind these eras are framed against the disempowered status of tribes following their removal from homelands that resulted in devastating population losses. Quotes from Indian agents and citing of the IAP records enrich the understanding of the ideologies that were the foundation for the out-of-tribe placement of children.

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  • Haight, W., C. Waubanascum, D. Glesener, and S. Marsalis. 2018. A scoping study of indigenous child welfare: The long emergency and preparations for the next seven generations. Children and Youth Services Review 93:397–410.

    DOI: 10.1016/j.childyouth.2018.08.016Save Citation »Export Citation »

    The researchers reviewed thirty-seven peer-reviewed publications to determine the current state of literature, why disproportionate numbers of tribal children continue to be placed out of home, cultural beliefs regarding children, evidence related to cultural programs, and challenges to putting more of these cultural programs into practice.

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  • Jacobs, M. D. 2013. Remembering the “Forgotten Child”: The American Indian child welfare crisis of the 1960s and 1970s. American Indian Quarterly 37.1–2: 136–159.

    DOI: 10.1353/aiq.2013.0014Save Citation »Export Citation »

    Begins with an account of a 1975 adoption of a tribal child by a white couple based on unscrupulous methods. Jacobs details the Indian Adoption Project ideology and its public relations activities as she connects it to the boarding school practices. The efforts of tribal nations and the Association on American Indian Affairs that led to the Indian Child Welfare Act are also shared.

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  • Jacobs, M. D. 2014. A generation removed: The fostering and adoption of indigenous children in the postwar world. Omaha: Univ. of Nebraska Press.

    DOI: 10.2307/j.ctt1d9nmm2Save Citation »Export Citation »

    The author builds on her 2013 article with more depth and an expansion to Australian and Canadian child removal policies and practices. The inclusion of other countries creates awareness of child removal as a tool of cultural oppression internationally.

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  • Lomawaima, K. T. 1994. They called it prairie light: The story of Chilocco Indian School. Omaha: Univ. of Nebraska Press.

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    Archived records and sixty-one Chilocco alumni interviews reveal that poverty and a lack of educational options led many students to the boarding school. The book provides an inside look at the administration, the daily schedules of students, and how the school changed over time. The resistance of tribal children is memorable in this work that details students sabotaging the administration, using tribal languages, and practicing spirituality in secret.

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  • Markstrom, Carol. 2008. The empowerment of North American Indian girls: Ritual expressions at puberty. Omaha: Univ. of Nebraska Press.

    DOI: 10.2307/j.ctt1dfnv6wSave Citation »Export Citation »

    In-depth qualitative research frames the author’s review of the literature related to indigenous puberty ceremonies. She contrasts Western developmental theory with tribal cultural orientations. This contrast is useful in providing understanding of the communal orientation to development across the lifespan. In particular, the importance of a mentor and community in the support of youth is a focus of her findings.

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ICWA

The Indian Child Welfare Act (ICWA) of 1978 is the legal foundation for contemporary tribal child welfare systems. Nearly all tribal nations administer ICWA programs in addition to urban-based programs (see Scannapieco and Iannone 2012). Gaines-Stoner, et al. 2019 describes the ICWA investment in the welfare of the individual child and the tribe through the creation of federal-level standards regarding the removal of tribal children. This book is comprehensive, with expansive resources to assist tribes and states. Work within tribal child welfare is multifaceted given the involvement of interdisciplinary professionals at local, state, and tribal levels. Gonzalez and Gonzalez-Santin 2014 discusses the connections between the ICWA and the juvenile justice system. Atwood 2008 explores the inclusion of the child’s perspective in cases. Haight, et al. 2018 is indispensable for its analysis of thirty-seven peer-reviewed studies in order to understand the persistent overrepresentation of indigenous children in child welfare. The authors provide insight into the challenges and assets operating in current tribal child welfare systems. These needs are echoed in Leake, et al. 2012, which reports findings from a national needs assessment involving ninety-five tribal nations. Barnes, et al. 2019 addresses the recent attention given to the concept of trust between American Indian and non-American Indian tribal child welfare workers, which may signify a new focus in workforce training.

  • Atwood, B. 2008. The voice of the Indian child: Strengthening the Indian Child Welfare Act through children’s participation. Arizona Law Review 50:127–156.

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    The importance of listening to children involved in ICWA proceedings is referenced in terms of the existing law and appointment of child representation. Benefits and barriers to this arrangement are framed against a thorough history of the act and congruence with tribal orientation and international law.

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  • Barnes, A. R., J. L. Constantine Brown, and D. McCarty-Caplan. 2019. The unintended consequences of the Indian Child Welfare Act: American Indian trust in public child welfare. Child and Youth Service Review 98:221–227.

    DOI: 10.1016/j.childyouth.2019.01.012Save Citation »Export Citation »

    A survey of 146 tribal child welfare workers found that the American Indian workers had higher levels of trust in general and reported public child welfare employees were more trustworthy in comparison to others.

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  • Fletcher, Matthew, Wenona T. Singel, and Kathryn E. Fort, eds. 2009. Facing the future: The Indian Child Welfare Act at 30. East Lansing: Michigan State University Press.

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    Provides a multidisciplinary perspective on the ICWA. Social workers, scholars, and lawyers offer perspectives on the implementation of the law and difference across states. This book is particularly informative in its discussion of differences across states in either facilitating the ICWA or creating barriers to compliance.

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  • Gaines-Stoner, K., K. C. Tilden, and J. F. Trope. 2019. The Indian Child Welfare Act handbook, 3d ed. Chicago: American Bar Association.

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    Comprehensive in its discussion of the history behind the ICWA, application of the law, jurisdictional issues, review of court cases, listings of tribal programs, and state codes, with sample forms. Useful for those involved in administration, training, and direct service provision in tribal and state child welfare organizations.

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  • Gonzalez, T., and E. Gonzalez-Santin. 2014. ICWA: Legal mandate for social justice and preservation of American Indian/Alaska Native heritage. In Social issues in contemporary Native America: Reflections from Turtle Island. Edited by Hilary Weaver, 129–144. Burlington, VT: Ashgate.

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    This chapter provides history related to historical oppression of tribal nations through their children. Authors then provide a context for contemporary practice with a reference to juvenile justice, state examples of child welfare acts, and a call for a comprehensive approach to the ICWA to reduce disproportionate rates that remain despite decreased rates of removal.

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  • Haight, W., C. Waubanascum, D. Glesener, and S. Marsalis. 2018. A scoping study of indigenous child welfare: The long emergency and preparations for the next seven generations. Children and Youth Services Review 93:397–410.

    DOI: 10.1016/j.childyouth.2018.08.016Save Citation »Export Citation »

    This work provides an overview of the indigenous child welfare peer-reviewed literature that is useful for program directors and grant writers in tribal and state systems. Social stress, few accessible services, and racism are among the challenges described. Promising tribal and state collaborations are detailed, along with references to the needs for capacity building and the perspective of children and parents.

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  • Leake, R., C. Potter, N. Lucero, J. Gardner, and K. Deserly. 2012. Findings from a national needs assessment of American Indian/Alaska Native child welfare programs. Child Welfare 91.3: 47–63.

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    This article is significant in that it represents one of the few studies and possibly the only strengths-based needs assessment of tribal child welfare. The National Child Welfare Resource Center for Tribes (NCWRCT) conducted the research. It is noteworthy that the NCWRCT arose from a collaboration between federal and non-governmental entities including the Tribal Law and Policy Center, the Indian Family Resource Center, the Native American Training Institute and the Butler Institute for Families, and the Children's Bureau. State and tribal level administrators will appreciate the in-depth discussion of subtopics under the five areas of findings.

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  • Scannapieco, M., and M. A. Iannone. 2012. Native American Indian child welfare system change: Implementation of a culturally appropriate practice model across three tribal welfare systems. Child Welfare 91.3: 157–172.

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    Three tribal nations participated in the implementation of a culturally congruent manual that includes policy, practice, and procedure. The process of manual development allowed for an identification of service change needs. Stages of implementation, training method, and technical assistance were cited as critical for completion. The article is important for those seeking system wide cohesion and cultural relevance.

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ICWA Evaluation

Research regarding outcomes of the ICWA is severely limited. MacEachron, et al. 1996 reports on a national-level evaluation using multiple data sources. Limb, et al. 2004 provides a content analysis of each state and demonstrates a lack of adherence in seeking tribal consultation for ICWA guidelines. Cross 2006 provides insight into the Indian Family Exception Doctrine as a formal state practice that rejected the ICWA definition of an Indian child. More recent works show diversity across states in collaborations that seek adherence to the ICWA. Focusing on one southwestern state, Limb, et al. 2008 shows high rates of compliance. Porter, et al. 2012 describes a tribal-state collaboration that led to the Wisconsin Indian Child Welfare Act. MacLachlan 2018 details state refusal to transfer cases to tribal courts, and the importance of federal guidelines in increasing compliance. Scanlon 2011 focuses on diverse definitions of active efforts that can lead to lack of compliance. In the pursuit of higher compliance, Lidot, et al. 2012 describes a measure used in California that could be used to assess state readiness for tribal collaboration. Despite the passage of the ICWA as law in 1978, a lack of fidelity research does not hold programs accountable. A common theme across all literature is that tribal children remain disproportionately represented in out-of-home placements.

  • Cross, S. 2006. Indian Family Exception Doctrine: Still losing children despite the Indian Child Welfare Act. Child Welfare 85.4: 671–690.

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    Cross describes the barriers to state compliance with the ICWA due to unawareness, lack of training, and funding constraints. She then focuses on the emergence of the Indian Family Exception Doctrine as a major attack on the ICWA by challenging the definition of an Indian child. The Kansas state court created the doctrine, which defines an Indian child as one that has been raised in a tribal family or exposed to tribal culture.

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  • Lidot, T., R. M. Orrantia, and C. J. Miryam. 2012. Continuum of readiness for collaboration, ICWA compliance, and reducing disproportionality. Child Welfare 91.3: 65–87.

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    This article describes a measure of state readiness for collaboration with tribal systems to reduce the continued disproportionality of tribal children in California state child welfare. The continuum of readiness has a logic model basis that evaluates state systems on their awareness of resources, history, culture, values, links to tribal providers, compliance, and technical assistance. This tool is useful for state and tribal child welfare administrators across the nation.

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  • Limb, G., and E. F. Brown. 2008. An examination of the Indian Child Welfare Act section of state Title IV-B Child and Family Service Plans. Child Adolescent Social Work Journal 25:99–110.

    DOI: 10.1007/s10560-008-0114-4Save Citation »Export Citation »

    Authors focused on the records of tribal children in the custody of one southwestern state. Results showed a majority of cases followed the ICWA and instituted active efforts, with a high level of tribal-state collaboration. The finding that state child welfare workers still had a limited understanding of the ICWA requirements is a source for future training. This article provides an example of evaluation that is useful for administrators and evaluators.

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  • Limb, G., T. Chance, and E. F. Brown. 2004. An empirical examination of the Indian Child Welfare Act and its impact on cultural and familial preservation for American Indian children. Child Abuse and Neglect 28.12: 1279–1289.

    DOI: 10.1016/j.chiabu.2004.06.012Save Citation »Export Citation »

    Following 1994 amendments, Title IV-B funding required states to describe how they would follow the ICWA after tribal consultations. The authors describe a content analysis of each state and interviews that determined a lack of defined tribal consultation and omission of measures required for compliance.

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  • MacEachron, A. E., N. S. Gustaysson, S. Cross, and A. Lewis. 1996. The effectiveness of the Indian Child Welfare Act of 1978. Social Services Review 70.3: 451–463.

    DOI: 10.1086/604199Save Citation »Export Citation »

    Reviews five data sources that span 1975 to 1986 to assess the effectiveness of the ICWA on a national level. The authors express concern that there was only one other national evaluation completed since 1978. They explain that this lack of evaluation will inhibit compliance. This work would serve researchers, program evaluators, and administrators.

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  • MacLachlan, E. 2018. Tensions underlying the Indian Child Welfare Act: Tribal jurisdiction over traditional state court family law matters. Brigham Young University Law Review 2:455–495.

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    Key for understanding the lack of state compliance as a reaction to reduced power. This work is comprehensive in its policy history between tribal nations, states, and the federal government. State child welfare acts and the 2016 Bureau of Indian Affairs ICWA guidelines are discussed as foundational to state compliance.

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  • Porter, L. L, P. P. Zink, A. R. Gebhardt, M. Lells, and M. R. Graef. 2012. Best outcomes for Indian children. Child Welfare 91.3: 135–156.

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    The Wisconsin state collaboration among tribes, county child welfare, and an implementation center is described, with the outcomes focused on understanding the Indian Child Welfare Act in addition to improving communication and coordination. This article is relevant for tribal, state, and local entities.

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  • Scanlon, M. 2011. From theory to practice: Incorporating the active efforts requirement in Indian Child Welfare Act proceedings. Arizona State Law Journal 43.2: 629–664.

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    Scanlon cites the lack of a clear definition of active efforts across states as evidence of a larger pattern that hinders the elimination of disproportionate out-of-home placements for tribal children. The article provides the legislative history, the importance of the Mississippi Choctaw case that created a framework for lower courts, and provides recommendations.

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  • van Straaten, J., and P. Buchbinder. 2012. Indian Child Welfare Act: Improving compliance through state-tribal coordination. Children’s Legal Rights Journal 32.2: 38–49.

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    Focuses on the barriers to state compliance, including training, the Adoption and Safe Families Act, and urban locations of tribal families. Overcoming these challenges depends on a shared system response with the incorporation of the ICWA into daily practice. The view that only one department or that the only tribe is responsible is the reason for the continued high rates of out-of-home placements for tribal children.

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Manuals and Guides

A host of manuals and guides exist, covering understandings of ICWA, advocacy, implementation, compliance, evaluation, and court proceedings. There is variance in the target audience, which includes families, child welfare workers, tribal nations, and judges. A number of organizations focus on compliance. National Indian Child Welfare Association 2018, Casey Family Foundation 2015a, Casey Family Foundation 2015b, and National Council of Juvenile and Family Court Judges 2013 provide guides for adherence. National Council of Juvenile and Family Court Judges 2017 also provides a guide that specifies the hearings. National Indian Child Welfare Association 2019 is useful for a wide range of audiences. Native American Rights Fund 2007 offers a comprehensive legal guide.

Academic Institutions Related to ICWA and Tribal Child Welfare

Numerous universities have projects and programs dedicated to the ICWA. Families can receive legal assistance at the University of Minnesota, University of Washington, and the University of Colorado. The University of Oklahoma offers simulation-based training for tribal child welfare professionals. Michigan State University, the University of Minnesota, the University of North Dakota, the University of Arizona, and the University of Kansas provide a variety of support to tribal nations.

National Level Organizations

National level organizations are a source of resources related to the ICWA, providing contacts, fact sheets, forms, media kits, online and in-person trainings, and tribal programs dedicated to strengthening families. The National Indian Child Welfare Association has long provided advocacy, education, and research regarding the ICWA. The Children’s Bureau hosts the Capacity Building Center for Tribes and partners with the Tribal Law and Policy Institute to sponsor the Center for Native Tribes and Family Resilience and the National Child Welfare Resource Center for Tribes. The Bureau of Indian Affairs offers information, resources, and contacts.

Healing and Reconciliation

Healing and reconciliation organizations related to the boarding school experience and the Indian Adoption Era have emerged. The National Native American Boarding School Healing Coalition utilizes advocacy, education, and research to foster healing from the transgenerational impact of boarding school attendance. The First Nations Repatriation Institute is another advocacy organization that extends its goals to connecting First Nation adoptees with their biological and cultural families. The Maine Wabanaki-State Child Welfare Truth and Reconciliation Commission is the first state-based commission in the United States.

Anthologies

The majority of the anthologies are based on stories, poetry, and other works from boarding schools and the Indian Adoption Project. This literature provides insight into the trauma experienced and pathways to healing.

  • Cotter-Busbee, P., and T. A. DeMeyer. 2017. Lost children of the Indian Adoption Project. Vol. 1, Two worlds. 2d ed. Scotts Valley, CA: Create Space Independent Publishing Platform.

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    This is the first of three volumes; it contains first-person accounts from adult survivors of the boarding school and Indian Adoption Project era. All the authors relate the individual, family, and tribal struggles related to loss of identity and culture.

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  • Busbee, P., T. L. Hentz, and S. Ferdorko. 2016. Lost children of the Indian Adoption Project. Vol. 2, Called home: The roadmap. Scotts Valley, CA: Create Space Independent Publishing Platform.

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    The second volume of first-person accounts of tribal adults who were placed outside of their tribal homes and cultures.

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  • Grant, A. 2004. Finding my talk: How fourteen Canadian Native women reclaimed their lives after residential school. Markham, Ontario: Fifth House Publishers.

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    A collection of biographies from fourteen First Nations women who survived Canadian boarding schools. Each person relates the struggles of the schools, the impacts on their adult lives, and how they have proven to be resilient.

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  • Hentz, T. L. 2016. Lost children of the Indian Adoption Project. Vol. 3, Stolen generations. Scotts Valley, CA: Create Space Independent Publishing Platform.

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    This book concludes the three-volume set that focuses on the stories of survivors of the Indian Adoption Project. Stories encompass the difficulty of being placed in non-tribal homes, pathways to healing, and reconciliation.

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  • Lajimodiere, D. K. 2019. Stringing rosaries: The history, the unforgivable, and the healing of Northern Plains American Indian boarding school survivors. Fargo: North Dakota State Univ. Press.

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    Includes interviews with sixteen boarding school survivors, with a listing of 366 boarding school names and locations. The author’s father is a boarding school survivor and the writer describes the impact on her life and the importance of healing self, family, and tribe.

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  • Lomawaima, K. T., B. J. Child, and M. L. Archuleta, eds. 2000. Away from home: American Indian boarding school experiences, 1879–2000. Phoenix, AZ: Heard Museum.

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    Visually engaging, the book includes photos and first-person accounts of boarding schools. Provides an appreciation of native children’s ability to resist and retain cultural connections.

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Bibliographies

National Indian Law Library 2007 is an ICWA bibliography that represents diverse materials and sources. Moore 2005 focuses primarily on written ICWA works.

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