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As the U.S. Supreme Court decision in a case that challenges the Indian Child Welfare Act (ICWA) comes down this month, Native News Online staff sat down with Roxy Sprowl (Red Cliff Band of Lake Superior Ojibwe), a Michigan State University student who grew up in the child welfare system.

Sprowl is a senior studying social work with a minor in race and ethnicity in the United States and Indigenous Studies. She was featured on a special edition of Native Bidaské last April to discuss her experience as a Native college student

Sprowl talked to Native News Online about staying connected to her Native American identity, misconceptions surrounding ICWA, and what she’d like the Supreme Court to know about what it means to be a Native American child in the foster care system.

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This interview has been edited for clarity and length.

What is your relationship with ICWA and the child welfare system?

When I was five years old, I was placed in the child welfare system. I live in Michigan. I was born and raised in Michigan, but I am from a Wisconsin tribe, The Red Cliff Band of Lake Superior Ojibwe. I was removed from my mother’s care and placed with my paternal grandmother [at five years old]. She was my legal guardian for 13 years until I aged out. At first, she was my foster parent, but then she became my legal guardian quickly after, that was in 2007. 

In terms of ICWA, I was placed with my relatives, so I wasn’t placed with my Native family, which is my mom’s side. I was placed with my other family, though, which is my dad’s side, and that’s the white side of my family, so I was still placed with family. 

Growing up, I had an Indian outreach worker — that’s what they were called; now they’re called Native American outreach workers. She was my social worker up until I was around 11, and then I got another social worker. Both of them were Native. They essentially do a lot of things, but one of the things that they do, according to ICWA and then also MIFPA — the Michigan Indian Family Preservation Act, which was enacted in 2013 — is to ensure that there are active efforts going on in the child’s life in terms of either reconnecting with their tribe or being connected to their families. 

They were really helpful, especially my first one, in making sure that I was connected to who I am and knowing who I was. I was lucky because my aunt, my dad’s brother’s wife, she’s also Native, but she’s Sioux Tribe. She’s the Indian Education Coordinator for the school district. So I grew really close with her, and I was able to make a connection to my culture through her. 

I took a lot more interest when I was in high school, and I started reflecting on my own experience more and becoming more self-aware, both of myself and also the world around me. I found out more about what ICWA was when I was in high school, and then I started doing a lot of research on it, and I still do research on it now and work on it now in college. 

When it came out that ICWA was being challenged, how did that make you feel?

It made me extremely scared. I think, as Native people, we often feel a lot of grief for things, and obviously, we have a lot of intergenerational trauma. A lot of us in our families have experienced being in the foster care system or being adopted into non-Native homes, and so that was really scary for me. Even though I didn’t necessarily grow up with my native family, I still grew up with my family. And so it was really scary to hear that from a more personal lens, but also thinking about the potential repercussions of that. It was really scary.

What do you think are common misconceptions about ICWA? 

The biggest thing is that it is race-based. It’s not race-based. It is based on the fact that we have tribal sovereignty and that we should have a right to decide what happens within our own communities. When it comes to any child welfare in general, we should have a say within our own tribal communities: what happens, what active efforts look like, and all of that kind of stuff. One of their arguments that’s being raised is that it is race-based and violates the Equal Protection Clause. But again, we have that unique political relationship. 

And then another thing about ICWA is I think a lot of people should look into what the states have done, either with codifying legislation or when it’s codified based on judicial hearings. Looking into those things is really important.  

In terms of easing anxiety about this, in Michigan, there is the Michigan Indian Family Preservation Act, so if ICWA is completely upheaved, which I think is pretty unlikely, there is still that. Obviously, that might get challenged, but there still is that piece to it, which not only codifies ICWA but strengthens it in a lot of ways because there’s a lot more specific language about connecting with the child’s tribe and seeing what the tribe determined as ‘active efforts.’ 

The last misconception is also an argument that’s being made or is related to an argument that’s being made, is the third placement preference within ICWA that allows an Indian child to be placed in the care of another Indian tribe or Indian family from a different tribe. A lot of people don’t realize that that placement is the least used way to that one out of all the different Indian Child Welfare cases out there.

What do you want the Supreme Court to know about your experience?

I listened to the vast majority of the hearing, and it was really interesting because the people they had on to talk about ICWA, a lot of them did not seem to know what on-the-ground outreach workers or frontline workers do with ICWA and what happens within cases. There seems to be a general misunderstanding of that across the board. 

The first thing is that it’s not a race-based law. That’s a common misconception because of the way the 21st century 2023 lens that we have on race and racial classification. I think we’re putting that type of lens onto Native identities, and it doesn’t necessarily match. We have a unique political standing in this country as American Indian people, and I use the term American Indian because that’s how we’re legally identified and are legally granted, in a sense, our sovereignty. 

We have a unique relationship with people — if that makes sense. Tribes have unique relationships with their citizens and with their members, who they consider members, who they don’t consider members, and who they consider descendants. But each tribe is political because we’re given the right to vote within our tribes depending on whatever your membership is within your tribe. And so we’re given that through tribal sovereignty, and I don’t think a lot of people understand that political aspect to our identities. I feel a lot of times people forget the ‘Nation’ part of it [tribes]. That’s the thing that I wish they understood better.

And I also wish that from my own experience, I can tell them how beneficial it was for me to remain with my family, especially to have the connections that I did with my aunt. If I did not have the connections that I did to her, and if I did not have the connections that I did to my Native American Outreach Worker, I don’t know where I would genuinely be at. Those two women, in a lot of ways, have inspired me so much to be who I am and to be proud of who I am. And also to remain, in a sense, civically engaged with my tribal community and to reconnect with that aspect of who I am. If I had not been placed even with my family, I’m not sure I would have had those connections, and if I had been adopted to a completely different family entirely and had no opportunity to know what tribe I’m from, anything about my tribe, or my culture, I think I would be really lost honestly. I think my life would honestly be a lot harder than it is now.

You’re in the Social Work Program at MSU.  Do many other non-native students in your classes know about ICWA? 

Out of the classes that I have taken, maybe one or two students know about ICWA, and even my professors don’t really know that much about ICWA. So it has been really difficult, and I feel like I’m always the point person to try to explain it. Even then, sometimes I’ve had to explain why it should still be a thing and why it should still be something to uphold. They don’t really know anything, and if they do, they’ve just heard the term before. They don’t really know anything about the placement preferences, and they don’t really know anything about what it actually looks like in practice or know anybody with any lived experience or who has been through it.

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About The Author
Neely Bardwell
Author: Neely BardwellEmail: This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.
Neely Bardwell (descendant of the Little Traverse Bay Bands of Odawa Indian) is a staff reporter for Native News Online. Bardwell is also a student at Michigan State University where she is majoring in policy and minoring in Native American studies.