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Guest Column | NM’s ICWA proposal born of tribes, Pueblos, nations

By Heather Yazzie-Kinlacheeny

New Mexico’s Indian Child Welfare Act ensures children can connect with their communities, like I did.

I remember each spring as a child, I would ride an 8-by-3 foot gunny sack full of wool to be traded at Borrego Pass Trading Post with my grandpa. Nothing mattered in the 20 miles of dirt road from my grandparents’ house to the store.

I can still feel the freedom of no seat belts, the excitement of ice cream, and the security of my grandpa Nalii’s driving. It was a promise that we would have winter supplies and that all credit debts were paid.

This experience with my parents and grandparents at the trading post was an integral aspect of my cultural ties, the foundation of my relationships, my paternal grandparents’ affection, our land, and had everything to do with my identity.

Parallel to these warm memories grew the anxiety of how others would have viewed my childhood without what are considered essentials today—running water, electricity and proper usage of seatbelts.

I lived seasonally with my paternal grandparents in Littlewater, New Mexico. I hadn’t realized that my parents’ decision to place me at my grandparents’ house for a long period of time could have been considered improper parenting, neglect, or worse, abandonment.

N’dí (despite that), I know that the time with my grandparents was critical to who I am.

With the lingering smell of wool fresh in my mind, I’d like to share who I am. Kinyaa’áanii nishłį Tódích’íi’nii bashishchiin. Lok’áá Diné’é dashicheii.

Tóaheedlíinii dashinálí. I am my mother and maternal grandmothers, who are the Towering House People. I am born to my father and paternal grandmothers, who are the Bitter Water People. I am my maternal grandfather, who is the Reed People. I am my paternal grandfather, who is the Water-Flows-Together People.

My name is Heather Yazzie-Kinlacheeny. I am originally from Tséijéé (Heartbutte) east of Crownpoint.

Borrego Pass Trading Post, located in the Eastern Navajo Agency, posted its final sale in June 2021. Around the same time, I first heard of efforts to pass a New Mexico state Indian Child Welfare Act.

At first, I felt uneasy because the bill brought back memories about how non-Indigenous people have looked at the Navajo Nation’s ability to protect our own children.

But I have since realized that ICWA is fundamental if we want to make sure every Indigenous child can have important and ongoing connections to their communities.

I have seen how federal ICWA was initiated and implemented since the 1980s. It has supported the right and need for Indigenous children to stay with their extended families and communities, as I experienced growing up.

The federal Indian Child Welfare Act of 1978 was enacted in response to a national crisis of Indigenous children being removed from their families and communities at incredibly high rates and often without justification. It provides an important base of standards and protections for Indigenous children in child welfare systems.

For over 40 years, this pressured the development of stronger partnerships and coordination between tribes and states regarding the removal and placement of our Indigenous children.

According to a 2007 national study on racial disproportionality and disparity, Indigenous children are still four times more likely to be placed in foster care than white children. Although federal ICWA had important impacts, implementation has been flawed in many states and further protections and work is needed.

Here in New Mexico, Indigenous leaders have long worked to protect the Indigenous children in their own communities and beyond. These leaders have looked for ways to strengthen ICWA in our home state.

New Mexico’s state ICWA was born out of their efforts to directly support the inherent sovereign rights of tribes, Pueblos, and nations in New Mexico to protect their children, families and communities.

The process in creating the bill has included tribal leaders, tribal ICWA and social service workers, impacted families, and other advocates to ensure there is a nuanced understanding of specific laws, culture, values, and child-rearing practices within New Mexico’s tribes, nations, and Pueblos.

New Mexico state ICWA holds our state’s child welfare system to a higher standard for the wellbeing of our Indigenous children.

One important element of the act is that it says families cannot be denied as an appropriate placement because they are poor or live traditionally. This values the rich supports our families can provide for children, even if they don’t have the most resources.

My parents taught me my clans because it would ensure that I would never be lost in life. I wouldn’t be without a home. We need to have K’é (relationships) in order to exist.

New Mexico state ICWA protects that teaching by allowing us the opportunity to not lose our children and supports us speaking on their behalf. We need state and federal laws like ICWA that rigorously support the rights of and acknowledge the sovereignty of Indigenous nations.

New Mexico state ICWA allows the federal mandate born of congressional intent to be strengthened and authentically rooted in the specific needs of our Indigenous children and families in New Mexico, thus becoming a state mandate of Indigenous intent.
Íłta (finally).

Heather Yazzie-Kinlacheeny (she/her) is a policy fellow with a focus in Indigenous policy change at Bold Futures, a New Mexico based organization. She also serves as the chapter vice president for her community of Smith Lake and serves on the Eastern Navajo Agency Council.


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