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Indian Children and the Federal-Tribal Trust Relationship

80 Pages Posted: 30 Apr 2016 Last revised: 26 Jun 2017

Matthew L. M. Fletcher

Michigan State University College of Law

Wenona T. Singel

Michigan State University College of Law

Date Written: April 28, 2016

Abstract

This article develops the history of the role of Indian children in the formation of the federal-tribal trust relationship and comes as constitutional challenges to the Indian Child Welfare Act (ICWA) are now pending. We conclude the historical record demonstrates the core of the federal-tribal trust relationship is the welfare of Indian children and their relationship to Indian nations. The challenges to ICWA are based on legally and historically false assumptions about federal and state powers in relation to Indian children and the federal government’s trust relationship with Indian children.

Indian children have been a focus of federal Indian affairs at least since the Framing of the Constitution. The Founding Generation initially used Indian children as military and diplomatic pawns, and later undertook a duty of protection to Indian nations and, especially, Indian children. Dozens of Indian treaties memorialize and implement the federal government’s duty to Indian children. Sadly, the United States then catastrophically distorted that duty of protection by deviating from its constitution-based obligations well into the 20th century. It was during this Coercive Period that federal Indian law and policy largely became unmoored from the constitution.

The modern duty of protection, now characterized as a federal general trust relationship, is manifested in federal statutes such as ICWA and various self-determination acts that return self-governance to tribes and acknowledge the United States’ duty of protection to Indian children. The federal duty of protection of internal tribal sovereignty, which has been strongly linked to the welfare of Indian children since the Founding, is now as closely realized as it ever has been throughout American history. In the Self-Determination Era, modern federal laws, including ICWA, constitute a return of federal Indian law and policy to constitutional fidelity.

Keywords: Indian Child Welfare Act, ICWA, federal trust relationship, Indian tribes, self-determination, Indian boarding schools, Indian Adoption Project, Constitution, originalism, original intent, Indian affairs, legal history, Treaty of Greenville, tribal sovereignty

Suggested Citation

Fletcher, Matthew L. M. and Singel, Wenona T., Indian Children and the Federal-Tribal Trust Relationship (April 28, 2016). Nebraska Law Review, Vol. 95, No. 4, 2017. Available at SSRN: https://ssrn.com/abstract=2772139

Matthew L. M. Fletcher (Contact Author)

Michigan State University College of Law ( email )

648 N. Shaw
East Lansing, MI 48824-1300
United States

Wenona T. Singel

Michigan State University College of Law ( email )

318 Law College Building
East Lansing, MI 48824-1300
United States

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