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Keeping Native children in community is cultural preservation

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Angel Charley
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Angel Charley

Commentary: Indigenous people across New Mexico have a clear understanding and memory of the disastrous effects that family separation has had on the development of our communities, especially the removal of our children, leading to many deep wounds that we continue to try and heal.

This 30-day legislative session, Indigenous families and leaders are sending the clear message that the protection of Native children's connection to their people and community is vital for their, and their communities well being. This message comes through House Bill 135 –the ’Indian Family Protection Act’. Because ensuring that our Native children remain in their communities is integral to our cultural guardianship.

Every Native person has stories of their loved ones or members of their communities being adopted out. Whether it is the story of a cousin being moved to a family off tribal lands, or the retelling of how a grandparent was adopted and never returned, this has lasting impacts on not only the community, but the children removed as well. They are robbed of a community that had always wanted and loved them.

All of their stories and their placements are complex but what was clear to see was that they were removed from their families, their communities and have lost a part of themselves in the process. This is why we believe the IFPA is vital legislation. This bill will codify in our state law many of the protections found in the Indian Child Welfare Act of 1978. Meaning this legislation will uplift tribal sovereignty and tribal self-determination, by ensuring tribal communities are first in deciding how to care for their children in need, without the risk of them being taken away from their community.

The journey of IFPA is the culmination of deep intentions, strong advocacy and true partnership. A partnership of tribal impacted families, ICWA social workers, tribal attorneys, Governors and Presidents—who have all come together with one goal—to systemically protect our children. Because we know the placement of Indian children for far too long has not looked to our tribes nor our tribal families when the need for shelter arises. Best practice calls for placement with a child’s family and extended family to meet their unique needs.

Keeping Indian children in our tribal communities ensures our children are connected to what matters most: our culture, our identity, our history. Keeping our communities together means keeping our communities strong and NM has a unique opportunity in letting those most impacted lead us all.

Alongside this legislation, we at the Coalition to Stop Violence Against Native Women are also currently working on engaging Native resource families, the NM ICWA Consortium, and current and former tribal leadership to understand the recruitment and retention needs of Native foster families when engaging with our state’s child welfare system. We are committed to keeping our communities together grounded in culture, kinship and healing.

This session, we urge the New Mexico Legislature to act swiftly on the huge opportunity to strengthen the codes and practices that will keep our families together, for generations to come–destroying any legacy of Native child removals by the state.

Angel Charley is from the Pueblo of Laguna and the Executive Director of the Coalition to Stop Violence Against Native Women.