Navajo President Ben Shelly Writes Op-Ed for The Washington Post

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For Immediate Release

Navajo President Ben Shelly Writes Op-Ed for The Washington Post

WASHINGTON—Navajo Nation President Ben Shelly contributed an op-ed piece to the prestigious Sunday edition of The Washington Post newspaper. In the article, President Shelly provides the historical significance and reasoning behind the Indian Child Welfare Act. The U.S. Supreme Court recently remanded Adoptive Couple v. Baby Girl back to the South Carolina courts in a split 5-4 decision. The op-ed appeared online July 5, 2013 and in the print edition July 7, 2013.

The full text of his op-ed is below:

“The recent Supreme Court ruling regarding the fate of a young Cherokee girl has reignited debate about the role of the Indian Child Welfare Act in today’s society.

The law has faced critics since its passage in 1978. But understanding why it was implemented also helps explain why it remains necessary.

For hundreds of years, the official policies of the United States were to eradicate American Indians from their homelands. The doctrine of Manifest Destiny did not have room for the first peoples of this land. While the practice of genocide gave way to assimilation policies, the goal was still the same: to remove the Indian or Indian culture from these lands. As a result, Native Americans have been forcibly removed from their homelands and forbidden to speak their language or practice their culture. In the 1970s, a study by the Association of American Indian Affairs found, as many as 35 percent of Indian children were removed from their homelands through religious programs, boarding schools and adoption.

I was assimilated into mainstream U.S. culture through such practices. The cost to me of learning mainstream American values was the loss of my understanding of the Navajo belief system. I had to work very hard to reconnect to Navajo culture later in life.

When I was knee-high in the 1950s, I began my Bureau of Indian Affairs schooling in my home town of Thoreau, N.M. I entered a school system that drew many of its philosophies and practices from the 1870s, when boarding schools first became a tool of the federal government to “fix” the Indian problem.

Other programs were designed to help Indian children become acculturated, such as the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints’ Indian Placement Program, which began in 1947 and ended in 2000. This program took Native American children from their reservations and placed them with foster families. The children were supposed to be gone for only a year, but some still haven’t returned.

While it’s good for young people to learn about different cultures, it is just as important for youths to gain identity by learning about the culture they are born into. This is especially true when long-standing U.S. government policies have sought to eradicate that culture.

Teachers in my schools washed out our mouths with soap or openly punished us in other ways, sometimes physically, if we spoke our native language. I witnessed this until I graduated from high school in Snowflake, Ariz. As an Indian, I learned to be ashamed of a language and life that were designed to be my strength in times of greatest need. I never liked the taste of soap.

For decades, many of our young people were denied the right of cultural inheritance because of programs and adoptions eager to take American Indian children and assimilate them into the larger, dominant American society. Most of these efforts probably stemmed from people’s desire to help children. In reality, however, these actions resulted in confusion and mental trauma about identity, and many American Indians lost a basic sense of self. The tribes’ fundamental right to determine the best teachings for our children were denied.

This is why the Indian Child Welfare Act continues to play such an important role for American Indian tribes. Whether the children are Potawatomi, Seneca, Umatilla, Navajo or Cherokee, the law allows tribes to give our children the opportunity to experience the beauty of their culture and to ensure that we as a people survive.

I have been disturbed by the blood quantum discussion that has been part of the debate, sparked by thelawsuits about Baby Veronica, over whether a child is considered American Indian. Tribal membership is a sovereign and sacred right. A child determined to be a member of a sovereign nation is just that. Arguments of whether a child is “Indian enough” based on an outsider’s concept of what it is to be American Indian have no bearing.

American Indian people have long fought for our rights and practices to have a place in U.S. society. Our language, culture and traditions are as sacred as the air we breathe. Despite attempts to remove us in one form or another, we remain intact and culturally strong as ever. The chance to teach our children the ways of our ancestors is a sacred honor and duty.

The Navajo Nation has more than 320,000 tribal citizens who can call a 27,000-square-mile area home. In our home, our language flourishes, our culture remains intact and our ceremonies are performed. We live according to the beliefs and traditions bestowed upon us by our Holy People, our deities.

It’s a beautiful way of living.”

Congress passed the Indian Child Welfare Act in 1978 in response to the high rate of removal of Native American children by state, federal and private agencies. The Navajo Nation filed an amicus brief supporting Dusten Brown and the Cherokee Nation in the Indian adoption case citing the importance of the Indian Child Welfare Act and the direct impact any determination made by the court could have on its sovereign rights, as well as those of its members.

Additional factors contributed to the removal of Native American children from their homes. In 1971, over 34,500 Native children were placed in U.S. government boarding schools. Between 1947 and 2000, approximately 30,000 to 40,000 students were put in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints’ Indian Placement Program.

President Shelly is the first sitting vice president to be elected president of the Navajo Nation. Sworn into office on January 11, 2011, President Shelly leads the Navajo Nation with an agenda of economic prosperity, energy, technology, health and education.

The president began his service to the Navajo people in 1991 as a council delegate representing his home town of Thoreau Chapter in Thoreau, N.M. As a member of the Transportation and Intergovernmental Relations Committees, and chairman of the Budget and Finance Committee, he also served for 12 years as a McKinley County Commissioner in New Mexico.

Follow President Ben Shelly on Twitter or find him on Facebook

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