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This summer has marked another sad chapter in the history of tribal governance on Indian reservations. The Spirit Lake Reservation in North Dakota sounds like about as close as you can get to hell inside the United States today. Here's the New York Times report the other day:

The reservation has 38 registered sex offenders among its 6,200 residents, a rate of one offender for every 163 residents. By contrast, Grand Forks, N.D., about 85 miles away, has 13 sex offenders out of a population of 53,000 — a rate of about one in 4,000. In one home on the reservation, nine children are under the care of the father, an uncle and a grandfather, each a convicted sex offender, a federal official said. Two of the children, brothers who are 6 and 8, were recently observed engaging in public sex, residents said.

Perhaps more disturbing is the fact that reports of these crimes seem to be ignored by the authorities.

“Those little boys are crying out for help,” said a neighbor, who called the Bureau of Indian Affairs Police but said that officers declined to take a report or notify child welfare officials.

Another member of the tribe said that police officers and social workers failed to act after a 9-year-old girl described giving oral sex to a man.

Earlier this summer, the Times reported that a government psychologist named Michael R. Tilus, was reprimanded and reassigned for daring to complain to his superiors that the Spirit Lake tribe was ignoring widespread child abuse. Dr. Candelaria Martin, the clinical director of medical staff at Spirit Lake, who works for the Department of Health and Human Services, said that by blowing the whistle on what was going on at Spirit Lake, Tilus was “engaging in action and behavior of a dishonorable nature.” A few days later, the reprimand was rescinded but it seemed obvious that the first instinct of people working for the reservation was to protect the tribal leadership at all costs.

Finally, this week, the federal government announced that it would be taking over the tribe's social services. It's sure taken them long enough. The idea that tribes deserve autonomy in running their affairs has had disastrous results. Reservations have experienced widespread corruption among their leadership not to mention widespread pathologies -- alcoholism, abuse, low levels of education, high levels of teen pregnancy, etc. But because America committed the original sin of kicking the Indians off their land, we will continue to suggest that we have no moral ground on which to stand when it comes to rescuing Indians from situations that are worse than the worst inner city neighborhoods in the country.

Meanwhile, a couple in South Carolina who adopted a baby two years ago may lose her because of a federal law that suggests it's always better for children with Indian blood in them to be raised on Indian reservations. The biological father, a Cherokee Indian, has sued the couple to get the girl back. The couple are appealing their case to the Supreme Court. The Weekly Standard had a good account of the case. Basically the father had waived his parental rights when the girl was born but then changed his mind and so now a child who has only known her adoptive parents from birth to age 2 is going to be sent to live with a man she has never met. As the Standard explains:

The Indian Child Welfare Act ensures that in custody cases involving adoptions and foster care, preference is always given to keeping Indian children in Indian families. Using this law, Brown -- who is reportedly 3 percent Cherokee, roughly in the Elizabeth Warren range -- enlisted the Cherokee tribal council to help him sue for custody. Because Veronica has “a drop of Cherokee blood,” she qualifies for tribal membership and thus is an “Indian child” under the Indian Child Welfare Act.

The sad irony is that for children today, it is almost never better to be brought up on an Indian Reservation. Leaving aside the ridiculous notion that the color of a child's skin or the ethnicity of his ancestors should have any bearing on what will be the most loving, healthy environment in which he or she could be raised, there are almost no reservations where the conditions can come close to what this loving two-parent, middle-class family could provide for this girl.

Chrissi Nimmo, Cherokee Nation assistant attorney general, told an Oklahoma television station in January that "the Indian Child Welfare Act says the most vital resource to the continued existence of tribes are their children." Who cares? The goal here should not be to preserve the existence of the tribes but to protect the welfare of the children.

6 thoughts on “Children’s welfare should trump group rights”

  1. Nellie says:

    The ignorance this article demonstrates what happens when the public education system teaches history incorrectly. This poor author has no idea what indigenous communities are like, and perpetuates stereotypes as the basis of her entire argument. This article is a really sad example of our failed education system.

  2. Beth Ward says:

    Thank you for writing about what has been happening. We have watched children suffer under this kind of thing on many reservations for far too long.

  3. Kristy says:

    How can you speak to what a reservation is like? It’s highly likely you’ve never been to one. How dare you attack a whole people and several communities based on your narrow minded view of something you know nothing about! The law that is in question is designed to protect native children from ending up with people that think like you! People that obviously think so little of American Indian people and would jeopardize the well being of the child by belittling their identity and who they are. Not all native people are molesters and alcoholics and whatever other stereotypes you are attempting to perpetuate! Get off your high horse and try and be a tad more sensitive. This is coming from a native child that grew up on the reservation FYI..and you are quite offensive.

  4. Debra Belford says:

    Thank You Naomi for standing up for the children! We must remember that best interest of the children, we must be thier voice!

  5. Children's best interest supporter says:

    Thank you Naomi Schaefer Riley!

  6. SC Supporter says:

    Amen!! Finally someone “gets it”!!!! Thank you for this article. It should always be about THE CHILDREN and not the tribes.

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