I think I’ll retreat from the global scale of my last couple posts and dwell in the details for a while with this story about an adoption dispute on the Meskwaki Settlement. The story: a Meskwaki woman had a baby by a non-Meskwaki father and put the child (named Braven) up for adoption. The couple that chose to adopt the child was also non-Meskwaki. When it came time to turn the baby over to it’s new parents, the Meskwaki tribal council invoked the Indian Child Welfare Act (hereafter ICWA; see an FAQ on the ICWA for a plain-language description) to prevent the adoption and to take custody of the child. A tribal judge has returned custody to the mother, but she must now petition the tribal council to pursue the adoption.
I find this story interesting for a number of reasons. First of all, it highlights several ongoing points of contention within the Meskwaki community about who is Meskwaki and what that means in today’s world. Also, it illustrates the assumptions that have informed US Indian policy, even well-intentioned policies like the ICWA. (There are a handful of other stories detailing the Meskwaki case here, here, and here; the details are pretty much the same. I’ve chosen to focus on the first story that emerged on the subject because of what I find to be an interesting, and probably unintended, editorial content.)
The Meskwaki face the same issue that other American Indian peoples do (which is shared by other American minorities as well): how to maintain some sense of boundedness in the context of a pluralistic society. In recent years, the question of identification has been compounded for many Meskwaki by the construction and subsequent success of a tribal casino. While the financial security afforded by the casino has given the Meskwaki the autonomy to protect their cultural patrimony — for instance, by allowing the construction of a bi-lingual school under Meskwaki control — it has also raised concerns among some Meskwaki about the possibility of remaining true to their heritage while acting as corporate capitalists. One of the ways that these concerns have expressed themselves is through concerns over tribal membership. While there have long been worries about “half-breeds” and non-Meskwaki living on the Settlement — the fieldnotes I have from the ’50s contain numerous references to the “half-breed problem” — the issue has taken on new valence with the success of the casino and the distribution of services and annuities made possible by the new source of income. Tribal enrollment is not just a matter of cultural belonging, it is now more profitable than ever to be a recognized member of the tribe.
But enrollment is not easy to achieve. Under the Meskwaki tribal constitution, and in keeping with the strong patrilineal kinship system, enrollment requires recognition by an enrolled Meskwaki father. This raises two concerns in the community. One is that when a Meskwaki man has a child by a non-Meskwaki woman, the child is eligible to enroll, even though it may never set foot on the Settlement and even though it may be wholly raised by its non-Meskwaki mother (which is not always the case, but is likely), which is to say raised as a non-Meskwaki. The other concern is the reverse: when a Meskwaki woman has a child by a non-Meskwaki man, the child is not eligible to enroll, even though it may be raised on the Settlement as an integrated part of the Meskwaki community. On the one hand, there is a growing resentment about enrolled Meskwakis who play no part in the social life of the community; on the other, there is growing concern about resources being used to support people who are not recognized members of the community and, because their children cannot be enrolled, will not contribute to the ongoing reproduction of the society. These concerns have given rise to a mounting pressure to reform the enrollment provisions — perhaps by adopting DNA testing to establish “Meskwaki-ness”, a troubling development in its own right — as well as efforts to further limit residency of un-enrolled persons on the Settlement. The child whose adoption is in question has been born into the middle of these conflicting viewpoints: as the child of a non-Meskwaki father, he cannot be enrolled, and yet as the child of a Meskwaki mother (in a family that has some prominence as keepers of Meskwaki tradition) he represents part of the future of the Meskwaki culture.
These concerns are highlighted because adoption and kinship have a special meaning in Meskwaki culture. The death of an individual is followed by special adoption ceremonies in which the kinship role that the deceased played is “passed on” to another person — who becomes one’s father, brother, or whatever. We recognize in funerary customs the attempt of a group of people to come to terms with the “hole” the death has left in their network of social relations; Meskwaki adoption practices clearly fit into this model. But there’s a secondary meaning, as well, one which has special weight given the Meskwaki’s history — the protection of kinship networks has been essential to the survival of the Meskwaki as a people. Several times in the last couple centuries, the Meskwaki have faced extinction as a result of warfare or of disease. At one point, the community was reduced to only a couple dozen members; the adoption or reintegration of Meskwaki who had married out of the tribe or been captured in battle and integrated into their captor’s tribe was essential to the continuation of the Meskwaki, and the elaboration of multiple kinship roles essential following the literal decimation of the people — when 9 of 10 roles are suddenly vacated, kinship takes on a rather profound meaning.
Into this mix comes the ICWA. Passed in 1978, the ICWA was intended to put a stop to the use of adoption to advance an assimilationist agenda. Historically, adoption agencies have consciously striven to place Indian babies with non-Indian parents, arguing that poverty and ill education made Indian parents unlikely candidates for adoption. Family service agencies have also contributed to the assimilative project, often removing children form Indian homes after observing local customs that they deemed “abusive”. The intent was clearly assimilative: if government policies could not force Indian peoples as a whole to assimilate into the “general population”, at least individual Indians could be “spared” the penalties of an Indian upbringing. The ICWA grew out of the greater empowerment of native peoples in the US following the rise of the American Indian Movement and the development of more sophisticated legal strategies built around the concept of sovereignty. Essentially, it allows tribal governments to intervene in the adoption process and to prevent the removal of Indian children to non-Indian adoptive or foster parents, keeping such children within the community. In this case, however, the enrollment standards of the Meskwaki mean that the child in question is legally not Meskwaki; any Meskwaki identity that can be ascribed to the child must necessarily be premised on standards that the Meskwaki do not recognize in their enrollment standards. The child both is and is not Meskwaki; the law does not apply because the child is not Meskwaki, yet the law’s intent is to protect Indian cultures of which the child may well grow to become an important part, even without enrollment.
Part of the confusion stems from the fact that the law has to cover all sorts of enrollment regimes. Many, perhaps most, tribes offer immediate recognition to anyone who can demonstrate a particular percentage of descent from recognized “full-blooded” members of the tribe. For instance, the local Paiute colony requires 1/8 descent from members of a list compiled in 1923, all of who are considered “full-blooded”. Meet the terms and you are Paiute. The Meskwaki system is unusual, though perhaps not unique, in requiring the father’s active involvement in recognizing the child. But more than the need to accommodate different and sometimes conflicting enrollment regimes, confusion arises from the underlying premise of the law, a long-standing idea in American thought — that “Indian-ness” is inborn, that children are either born Indian, or they are born non-Indian. If they are born Indian, then they “belong” with the Indian tribe they were born into; if not, then they “belong” with non-Indians. A child like Braven challenges this assumption, because although he was born non-Indian (in the legal sense) he was also born Indian (in the sense of his potential to take part in and enrich Meskwaki culture).
The article I’ve cited is interesting in its own right for the assumptions about individual rights and cultural identity it reveals. The story portrays the mother as the “good guy”, motivated only by the assessment of what would be best for the child — an assessment which she is entitled to make both by virtue of her motherhood and by virtue of her right to individual freedom and choice. Opposed to her is not so much the tribal council, but rather the mother’s cultural identity itself: “…when it came time to turn him over to the couple that wanted to give Braven a home, his heritage got in the way” (emphasis added). The tribal council, as embodiments of that “heritage”, is seen as interfering with “the [mother’s] right to say who should raise [her child].” It is only decent, the article seems to suggest, to protect the mother’s and child’s rights from the tyranny of “heritage” — exactly the kind of thinking that the ICWA was drafted to oppose in the first place. Where the ICWA privileges cultural identity (as determined by affiliation), the article privileges individual identity (as determined by individual decision-making). And, of course, neither perspective can resolve the ambiguities presented by a non-Indian Indian like Braven.