On MSNBC Sunday morning, April 28, TV host Melissa Harris-Perry likened the removal of American Indian children from their tribal communities, placed in non-Native homes, to unauthorized international adoption.
"This is like transnational baby snatching right within U.S. borders," Harris-Perry said.
Harris-Perry opened the show by drawing attention to the Supreme Court case Adoptive Couple v. Baby Girl heard on April 16 concerning custody of 3-and-a-half-year-old “Baby Veronica,” between Dusten Brown, her biological father of Native descent, and a non-Native couple from South Carolina. For more details on the case, read "Supreme Court Takes on Indian Child Welfare Act in Baby Veronica Case."
A guest on the show, Jacqueline Pata, the executive director for the National Congress of American Indians, explained why Congress passed the Indian Child Welfare Act (ICWA) in 1978 and the importance of keeping Native children in Native communities. (Read Pata's recent column on ICTMN: "Baby Veronica and Native American Family Values.")
When the Act was introduced, approximately "one third of Native children were in foster care," Pata said. Of them, "90 percent were in homes outside of our communities. We had the highest adoption rates in the country at 8 percent nationally, and more than double that rate in other states."
"The tribal leaders were very concerned about the loss of our children to our communities, and we also had studies that said our children outside of their communities didn't stick to their culture, they were less successful, we had more suicides," Pata said. "We knew that the trauma of our children leaving our communities" was devastating both for Native families and those children removed from their culture.
Foster care and unregulated adoption of Native children is only the most recent way in which Indian children have been ripped away from their families and tribes. Pata referenced the boarding school era, and explained how Native Americans are still wounded from the removal, the white-washing and the abuse. Now they are experiencing a "great cultural revival" as "part of the healing process, bringing families back together."
"Keeping this [Indian Child Welfare] Act in place is one of those tools to help us keep our children at home," Pata said.
Harris-Perry commented on the ethnocentric mentality behind placing Native children in non-Native households, comparing that to the "adoption" of "orphans" with good families who may be located in vulnerable areas or countries and deceived by outside organizations.
"The idea," she said," is 'just feel grateful you're in America and you have a white family,'" Harris-Perry said.
Also featured on the show was Tarikuwa Lemma, who came to the United States from Ethiopia at age 13 for what she and her family was told was an educational exchange program. Upon arrival, she was told she had been adopted. “I didn’t want a new family because I had a family in Ethiopia,” said Lemma, who will be a freshman at college in the fall. According to an MSNBC report, "The family that tried to adopt Lemma and her two younger sisters changed their names and even stopped them from speaking their native language."
Jelani Cobb, associate professor of history and director of the Institute for African American Studies at University of Connecticut, echoed Harris-Perry's sentiment, calling this attitude "cultural arrogance—the worst form of Americanism, the belief that everyone would be better if they were more like us."
"'We'll bestow upon you the beliefs of our society, even against your will,'" he described it. "This was the same logic at the bottom of the slave trade."