Indian Child Welfare Act of 1978

President Carter delivers the State of the Union Address in 1978

President Carter delivers the State of the Union Address in 1978


At the 1974 Senate hearings related to the Indian Child Welfare Act (ICWA),

advocates ... documented the abuses and injustices Indian families had suffered as a result of the unwarranted removal of children and their placement in non-Indian families. Many Indian women testified to the intense pressure they had experienced from social workers and missionaries to give up their newborns. Other Indian witnesses claimed that social workers had unfairly removed their children, while still others reported on the veritable kidnapping of their children.[1]

In 1977 at the U.S. Senate Hearing of the Select Committee on Indian Affairs leading up to the passage of the Indian Child Welfare Act, Chairman James Abourezk of South Dakota stated:

Officials seemingly would rather place Indian children in non-Indian settings where their Indian culture, their Indian traditions and, in general, their entire Indian way of life is smothered. The Federal Government for its part has been conspicuous by its lack of action.... This course can only weaken rather than strengthen the Indian child, the family, and the community. This, at a time when the Federal Government purports to be working to help strengthen Indian communities. It has been called cultural genocide. 

Although HEW [Department of Health, Education, and Welfare] and the Departments of Justice and the Interior all opposed [ICWA], President Jimmy Carter signed it into law on November 8, 1978. A long battle spanning at least ten years came to fruition through a well-designed campaign.[2]

ICWA passage was the result of years of legislative hearings, research, meetings, conferences, and pressure by Native peoples, especially mothers, grandmothers, and social workers who were alarmed by the high number of Native children taken from their homes and tribes. The new laws aim was to keep Native children in Native families. It guaranteed the right for Native children to grow up in their community but its lack of enforcement led to decades more of abuse and suffering.

compelling question

In what ways was the Indian Child Welfare Act atonement for past wrongdoings? 



In The Courts of the Conqueror: The 10 Worst Indian Law Cases Ever Decided


A Generation Removed


“Report of the Maine Wabanaki-State Child Welfare Truth & Reconciliation Commission”


Questions & Activities

  1. Read the excerpt from In The Courts of the Conqueror
    • Explain the relationship between institutional racism and the role of non-Indian social workers and judges. What changes would you make to address the problem of institutional racism? What examples of institutional racism have you observed? 
  2. Read the excerpt from A Generation Removed and the “Report of the Maine Wabanaki-Child Welfare Truth & Reconciliation Commission.” 
    • Whose idea was it to pass ICWA? Why was its passage both important and controversial? 
    • Write a short essay that explains why you think child welfare workers and the states failed to enforce ICWA.
  3. Do a close reading of Section 2 [25 U.S.C. 1901] of ICWA and use the following sentence starter: “The purpose of ICWA is ... . 
  4. What is the role of tribal courts in the practical enforcement of ICWA? How does the relationship between state and tribal courts impact decision-making related to Native children under ICWA?

[1] Jacobs, A Generation Removed, 139.

[2] Jacobs, 158.