ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. - Navajo Nation President Russell Begaye called for the protection of Navajo children Dec. 10 in his support of the Indian Child Welfare Act (ICWA) during the opening banquet for the Navajo Division of Social Service in Albuquerque.
"There is nothing more devastating than seeing a Navajo child being taken from their parents," Begaye said during the Casey Family Program's Navajo child work session. "The connection that exists between a child and their parent is strong. It's a sacred bond. In our support of the ICWA, we are protecting the connection between children, their parents and siblings."
Last week, Begaye delivered a letter to Sylvia Burwell, secretary of Health and Human Services, asking for her to support ICWA in enforcing that state courts investigate and verify the enrollment of Native American children in custody and foster care cases.
Begaye spoke about the history of Native American children forced to attend boarding schools to emphasize the historical trauma caused by the separation of Indian children from their families, culture and language. Begaye and his brothers attended boarding school as young men.
"Imagine your identity being erased," he said. "Imagine not being able to see your mother and father. Imagine knowing you have family but not being able to see them. The separation is too much. Now, imagine children who are separated from their families and cultures for the entirety of their lives."
The ICWA again came under fire July 7, 2015, when the Goldwater Institute filed a proposed class-action lawsuit in federal district court in Arizona challenging the constitutionality of the ICWA and the Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA) guidelines that strengthen the legislation.
The lawsuit sparked a national discussion questioning the purpose of the ICWA. Begaye said the position of the Navajo Nation is that tribes, states and partners do everything to advocate for the legislation, which protects tribe's connection to Native American children.
Begaye said the lawsuit portrays the lifeways of Native Americans as insignificant while also portraying tribal communities as substandard.
"It makes you think about the issue in the questions it raises," he said. "Rather than go down that road, we, as Native Americans, need to know that we are just as good as anybody else."
The Goldwater lawsuit is a fight for the soul of tribal Nations because it challenges the equality of tribal Nations against non-tribal paradigms of societal standards not based in traditional culture or knowledge, Begaye said.
"Our traditional ways nurture our children and foster environments that are conducive to the success of our children," he said. "Navajo culture inherently protects the future generations as it does the elders."
Begaye expressed his gratitude to all the departments in attendance including the Health Education and Human Services Committee and Law and Order Committee delegates for coming together to support and address the importance of ICWA in keeping Navajo children with Navajo families. He called for the Nation's continued support of ICWA and for tribes to stand against the Goldwater Institute's lawsuit.
"Native Americans are just as good as any other society on Earth," Begaye said. "We love our families and will stand with them. We need to make sure that every Navajo child in state custody or foster care doesn't have to go through life wondering who they are or who their parents are."
Vice President Jonathan Nez presented a welcome address the following morning supporting the president's position while also addressing positive, healthy families and homes on the Nation.
Nez said he agreed with the need for all tribal Nations to come forward with strong messages supporting the act. He said there is a need for the Nation to develop a strong strategy in combating the Goldwater Institute's messaging and media campaign.
The vice president also extended gratitude to the partners who organized the conference.
"What they are doing is chipping away at the sovereign rights of Native Americans, which can eventually extend beyond ICWA," he said. "What the Goldwater Institute is doing is wrong."