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Native Americans Revitalize Ancient Tattoo Traditions

Undated courtesy photo of Jody Potts-Joseph, left, and daughter Quannah Chasinghorse, both of whom wear traditional Han Qwich'in tattoos.

For thousands of years, tattooing was an important form of cultural expression for Indigenous people across the Americas, but missionaries abolished the practice at different points in time as part of efforts to assimilate tribes and convert them to Christianity.

Today, a growing number of Native American, Alaska Native and Native Hawaiians are reviving tattooing, using methods their ancestors developed millennia ago.

Jody Potts-Joseph was born and raised in the Yukon River village of Eagle, home of the Athabascan-speaking Han Gwich’in people.

“I was raised pretty old school on the land and learned our traditional way of life, hunting and fishing for subsistence,” she said. “I was 18 when I learned that historically, Gwich’in men and women got tattooed — men on their joints and wrists, and women on their faces — as a rite of passage.”

For years, Potts-Joseph wanted to have her chin marked, but the last Gwich’in tattoo artists had passed away. Her daughter, Quannah Chasinghorse, also wanted a tattoo.

“She was only 12 at the time, and I told her to wait,” Potts-Joseph said. “I wanted to make sure that she was in an emotional space where she could handle any possible criticism or backlash.”

After two years of praying on it, Potts-Joseph relented. Using a large ink-dipped sewing needle, she gave her daughter what are called Yidiiltoolines at her eyes and on her chin. Soon afterward, Potts-Joseph enlisted her then-16-year-old son Izzy to ink her chin.

“For me, it was a reclaiming of my identity and part of my resistance to the shaming of our people after colonization,” she said. “And I saw my daughter change — she came into her power. She found her voice. Tattooing is powerful medicine.”

Markers of identity, spirituality, rank

Cultural anthropologist Lars Krutak, author of “Tattoo Traditions of Native North America,” has studied the traditions in 30 countries.

As a University of Alaska Fairbanks graduate student, he spent time among Yupik elders living on St. Lawrence Island in the Bering Sea. Yupik skin-stitch their tattoos, threading fine strands of reindeer or whale sinew through a bone or steel needle, then passing the thread through pigment and stitching designs into the top layer of skin.

“Typically, they used soot or lampblack from a seal oil lamp or the bottom of a cooking pot, mix it with water or human urine,” he said, explaining that urine’s high ammonia content helped in the healing process. “Sometimes, graphite was mixed into the pigment because it was believed to have spirit-repelling properties.”

A Siberian Yupik woman skin stitching the face of a young woman, c. 1900. Photo by Russian ethnographer Vladimir Bogoras.
A Siberian Yupik woman skin stitching the face of a young woman, c. 1900. Photo by Russian ethnographer Vladimir Bogoras.

Traditional tattooing served many functions.

“For one, marks could identify an individual’s family, clan, tribe or society,” Krutak said.

The Tlingit, Haida and other Northwest coastal peoples, for example, wore hand-poked family crests as a sign of social status, lineage and relationships to natural and supernatural events.

“There were therapeutic tattoos that were applied to primary joints to relieve arthritis,” he said. “I’ve documented tribes from Borneo to Alaska to Papua New Guinea who tattoo joint marks.”

Tattoos often marked milestones and achievements, such as a young hunter’s first kill.

“In some tribes in the Plains, you could read a man’s achievements on the battlefield by the marks he wore,” Krutak said.

This c. 1860 Cabinet card photograph shows Olive Oatman, orphaned and raised by the Mojave, who tattooed her according to tribal custom.
This c. 1860 Cabinet card photograph shows Olive Oatman, orphaned and raised by the Mojave, who tattooed her according to tribal custom.

Smithsonian anthropologists in the late 1880s reported that men of rank in the Omaha Tribe were given “honor marks,” charcoal tattoos applied with flint points bound to rattlesnake rattles.

A blind eye

Artist, writer and educator L. Frank Manriquez is descended from the Tongva and Acjachemen tribes of Southern California, which have seen a rebirth of traditional Indigenous tattooing.

“I’d thought about it for a long time,” Manriquez said. “For me, it was about the connection, a way to hold hands across time with my women ancestors.”

She was 40 years old when she got her first tattoo, from “a racist Chumash biker guy,” she said, laughing. He used a modern tattoo gun to ink parallel lines on her cheekbones.

Later, she had her chin tattooed with a traditional “triple 1” design. Later, Manriquez met Keone Nunes, who had studied traditional Polynesian tattooing in Samoa.

L. Frank Manriquez (L.) with Hawaiian tattoo master Keli'i Makua. Both wear a Makapō eye tattoo. Photo, courtesy L. Frank Manriquez
L. Frank Manriquez (L.) with Hawaiian tattoo master Keli'i Makua. Both wear a Makapō eye tattoo. Photo, courtesy L. Frank Manriquez

Nunes hand tapped Manriquez’s makapō, a black rectangle around her left eye — a design with roots in the Marquesas Islands of French Polynesia.

“Makapō literally means ‘blind,’” Manriquez said. “And what it means spiritually is that I can see what others cannot.”

Like Potts-Joseph in Alaska, Manriquez said tattoos have changed her life.

“Non-Native Californians started treating me as if I were wearing priest robes,” she said. “All of a sudden, I was something they could not understand. But Native Americans listen to me differently, treat me differently.”

Quannah Chasinghorse at a Metropolitan Museum of Art's Costume Institute benefit gala, Monday, Sept. 13, 2021, in New York.
Quannah Chasinghorse at a Metropolitan Museum of Art's Costume Institute benefit gala, Monday, Sept. 13, 2021, in New York.

‘Not a trend’

Tattooing, once considered the domain of sailors, inmates and carnival barkers, has gone mainstream in America. In January 2022, Rasmussen Reports found that half of all Americans under age 40 wore at least one tattoo, up from 38% in 2016.

Many non-Natives draw inspiration from — if not outright copy — traditional Indigenous tattoos, a fact that angers Potts-Joseph. Her daughter, Chasinghorse’s, modeling career exploded in 2020 after being featured in a Calvin Klein advertising campaign.

Since then, Chasinghorse has appeared on fashion runways, at galas on and magazine covers internationally. This has given her a platform to advocate for climate justice and Indigenous inclusion. But the exposure has come at a cost.

“I look on social media and I’m seeing non-Native men and women wearing Quannah’s exact markings,” Potts-Joseph said. “We are very much opposed to anyone outside of our culture wearing traditional tattoos.”

“This is our culture, our family, our ceremony,” she added. “This is not a trend.”

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Native American Tribe Helps Sacred Condors Recover After a Century’s Absence

Native American Tribe Helps Sacred Condors Recover After a Century’s Absence
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California condors are North America’s largest bird. But they came close to extinction before conservationists and Indigenous communities joined to save them. Matt Dibble reports from California on how the Yurok Tribe is helping condors recover.

Native American News Roundup Nov. 13-19, 2022

FILE - Cherokee Nation Principal Chief Chuck Hoskin Jr. and delegate designate Kimberly Teehee , Tahlequah, Okla., Thursday, Aug. 22, 2019.

Here is a summary of some of the top Native American-related news stories in the U.S. this week:

Lawmakers Consider Seating Cherokee Nation Delegate in US House

Cherokee Nation Principal Chief Chuck Hoskin Jr. is urging Congress to honor a bargain made nearly 200 years ago to seat a Cherokee delegate in the U.S. House of Representatives.

The 1835 Treaty of New Echota set terms for the tribe's removal from Georgia to Indian Territory in present-day Oklahoma and included a Cherokee delegate to Congress.

"The carefully constructed promise...was in fact critical to secure the agreement of the Cherokee People," Hoskin told the House Rules Committee Wednesday, reminding them the treaty led to the deaths of thousands of Cherokees along the 1,000-mile Trail of Tears.

Detail, 1835 Treaty of New Echota, Art. 7, promising the Cherokee Nation a seat in the U.S. House of Representatives.
Detail, 1835 Treaty of New Echota, Art. 7, promising the Cherokee Nation a seat in the U.S. House of Representatives.

"The Treaty of New Echota is a living, valid treaty, and the delegate provision is intact," he said. "Lapse of time cannot abrogate a treaty."

The Cherokee Nation has selected former President Barack Obama adviser Kimberly Teehee to fill the seat. If confirmed, Teehee would join six nonvoting delegates representing the District of Columbia, Puerto Rico, American Samoa, Guam, the Northern Mariana Islands and the United States Virgin Islands.

"This can and should be done as quickly as possible," Committee Chairman James McGovern said. Lawmakers may first examine whether the treaty applies to other federally recognized Cherokee tribes in Oklahoma and North Carolina.

Read more:

FBI director Christopher Wray testifies for a second day before the Senate Homeland Security Committee, Washington, Thursday, Nov. 17, 2022.
FBI director Christopher Wray testifies for a second day before the Senate Homeland Security Committee, Washington, Thursday, Nov. 17, 2022.

FBI Head to Congress: Oklahoma Caseload Is Draining Agency Resources

FBI Director Christopher Wray says his agency's caseloads in Oklahoma increased dramatically following a U.S. Supreme Court decision giving federal and tribal governments, not the state, authority to prosecute violent crimes by or against Native Americans in more than 40% of Oklahoma.

The 2020 decision in McGirt v. Oklahoma blocked state government prosecutorial authorities in areas of eastern Oklahoma because, the court ruled, Congress never disestablished the Muscogee (Creek) Nation there.

"In response the FBI surged national resources to ensure it was able to address its mission requirements to investigate major crimes in the newly designated Tribal Territory," Wray told members of the House Committee on Homeland Security Tuesday. "These surges subsequently caused resource strains on other investigative programs and threats."

In June 2022, Supreme Court justices reversed McGirt, ruling in Castro v. Huerta that "the Federal Government and the State have concurrent jurisdiction to prosecute crimes committed by non-Indians against Indians in Indian country."

That decision has taken some of the pressure off the FBI, Wray said, and could reduce agency caseloads in Oklahoma by up to 20%.

"This would free FBI resources to return to other national threat issues, while still providing Tribal communities with the FBI law enforcement services they've historically relied on," he said.

Tribes regard the Castro-Huerta decision as an attack on their sovereignty.

Peabody Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology, Harvard University, Cambridge, Massachusetts.
Peabody Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology, Harvard University, Cambridge, Massachusetts.

Harvard Museum to Return Native American Hair Samples

Harvard University has apologized for holding and is pledging to return to tribes and families hundreds of hair samples taken from Native American children in the federal boarding school system.

In 1930, physical anthropologist and Colorado State Museum curator George Woodbury launched a study of the structure of Native American hair to determine Native Americans' racial origins.

He collected hair samples from hundreds of Native American children in federal boarding schools, comparing them to hair samples from indigenous individuals in Canada, Asia, Central America, South America and Oceania, as well as mummified remains found in Colorado. And he took them with him when he became a lecturer at Harvard in 1935.

"We recognize that for many Native American communities, hair holds cultural and spiritual significance, and the Museum is fully committed to the return of hair back to families and tribal communities," Jane Pickering, director of Harvard's Peabody Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology, said November 10.

Read more:

Jesse Tarango, left, chairman of Wilton Rancheria, and his mother, Mary Tarango, look at an enlarged photo of a statue of the late William Franklin Sr. during a groundbreaking ceremony for a Native American monument at Capitol Park in Sacramento, Calif.
Jesse Tarango, left, chairman of Wilton Rancheria, and his mother, Mary Tarango, look at an enlarged photo of a statue of the late William Franklin Sr. during a groundbreaking ceremony for a Native American monument at Capitol Park in Sacramento, Calif.

California to Honor Indigenous Northern California Tribes

State and tribal officials in California have broken ground on a monument honoring the Miwok and Nisenan peoples of Northern California. It will replace a statue of the controversial Spanish Catholic missionary Junipero Serra, which protestors toppled in July 2020 at the height of protests following the killing of George Floyd.

Serra was an 18th century Spanish missionary who founded a string of Roman Catholic missions in California to convert Indigenous peoples. In 2015, the Vatican canonized him as a saint. But for many Native Americans, Serra is a symbol of colonial oppression.

Serra's statue in the state capital Sacramento will be replaced with a bronze statue of the late William "Bill" Franklin, a well-known Miwok tribe member whom Assemblyman James C. Ramos called a "fierce protector and preservationist" of cultural dances and other ceremonies.

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Item in the Placer Herald newspaper Auburn, Ca., Dec. 3, 1864.
Item in the Placer Herald newspaper Auburn, Ca., Dec. 3, 1864.

Feds Seize Purported Native American Scalp from New England Auction Dealer

The FBI is investigating whether an artifact up for sale by a Maine auction house is as advertsed: a Native American scalp.

Acting on a tip, investigators got a search warrant and seized from Poulin's Antiques and Auctions an item labeled as a "Mescallaro [sic] Apache scalp."

The 1990 Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act criminalizes the purchase, sale or transport of Native American remains.

"There is a process underway to determine whether the item is human, whether it is Native American, and whether, if Native American, the remains are that of a person who was a member of a particular tribe," Supervisory Assistant U.S. Attorney Joel Casey said.

No charges have been filed against the auction house, he added.

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California Tribes Hail Dam Removal Plan After 20-Year Fight

The largest dam removal in US history has received final federal approval in a major victory for environmentalists and Native American communities. The four dams along the border of California and Oregon have been blamed for the decline of salmon and other species. VOA reporter Matt Dibble filed this story:

California Tribes Hail Dam Removal Plan After 20-Year Fight
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US House Eyes Prospect of Seating Cherokee Nation Delegate

Cherokee Nation Principal Chief Chuck Hoskin Jr. listens during a House Rules Committee hearing on legal and procedural factors related to seating a Cherokee Nation delegate in the U.S. House of Representatives, on Capitol Hill in Washington, Nov. 16, 2022.

The Cherokee Nation of Oklahoma moved a step closer on Wednesday to having a promise fulfilled from nearly 200 years ago that a delegate from the tribe be seated in the United States Congress.

Cherokee Nation Principal Chief Chuck Hoskin Jr. was among those who testified before the U.S. House Rules Committee, which is the first to examine the prospect of seating a Cherokee delegate in the U.S. House of Representatives. Hoskin, the elected leader of the 440,000-member tribe, put the effort in motion in 2019 when he nominated Kimberly Teehee, a former adviser to President Barack Obama, to the position. The tribe's governing council then unanimously approved her.

Right goes back to 1835

The tribe's right to a delegate is detailed in the Treaty of New Echota signed in 1835, which provided the legal basis for the forced removal of the Cherokee Nation from its ancestral homelands east of the Mississippi River and led to the Trail of Tears, but it has never been exercised. A separate treaty in 1866 affirmed this right, Hoskin said.

"The Cherokee Nation has in fact adhered to our obligations under these treaties. I'm here to ask the United States to do the same," Hoskin said to the panel.

Hoskin suggested to the committee that Teehee could be seated as early as this year by way of either a resolution or change in statute, and the committee's chairman, Massachusetts Democratic Rep. James McGovern, and other members supported the idea that it could be accomplished quickly.

"This can and should be done as quickly as possible," McGovern said. "The history of this country is a history of broken promise after broken promise to Native American communities. This cannot be another broken promise."

'We should be treated as siblings'

But McGovern and other committee members, including ranking member Republican Rep. Tom Cole of Oklahoma, a citizen of the Chickasaw Nation, acknowledged there are some questions that need to be resolved, including whether other Native American tribes are afforded similar rights and whether the Cherokee Nation of Oklahoma is the proper successor to the tribe that entered into the treaty with the U.S. government.

McGovern said he has been contacted by officials with the Choctaw Nation of Oklahoma and the Delaware Nation, both of which have separate treaties with the U.S. government that call for some form of representation in Congress. McGovern also noted there are two other federally recognized bands of Cherokee Indians that argue they should be considered successors to the 1835 treaty: the United Keetoowah Band of Cherokee Indians in Oklahoma and the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians based in North Carolina, both of which reached out to his office.

The UKB selected its own congressional delegate, Oklahoma attorney Victoria Holland, in 2021. Holland said in an interview with The Associated Press that her tribe is a successor to the Cherokee Nation that signed the 1835 treaty, just like the Cherokee Nation of Oklahoma.

"As such, we have equal rights under all the treaties with the Cherokee people and we should be treated as siblings," Holland said.

Only a few Native Americans serve in Congress, including Cole and Republican Rep. Markwayne Mullin, a citizen of the Cherokee Nation who was elected this month to represent Oklahoma in the U.S. Senate, where he will become the first Native American in that body in nearly 20 years.

"As a member of the Cherokee Nation, I firmly believe the federal government must honor its trust and treaty responsibilities to Indian Nations," Mullin said in a statement. "We are only as good as our word."

Members of the committee seemed to be in agreement that any delegate from the Cherokee Nation would be similar to five other delegates from the District of Columbia, Guam, the Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands, American Samoa and the Virgin Islands. These delegates are assigned to committees and can submit amendments to bills but cannot vote on the floor for final passage of bills. Puerto Rico is represented by a nonvoting resident commissioner who is elected every four years.

Native American News Roundup Nov. 6-12, 2022

U.S. Senator-elect Markwayne Mullin of Oklahoma speaks to supporters in Norman, Oklahoma, Aug. 23, 2022.

Here is a summary of some of the top Native American-related stories in U.S. news this week:

Some Wins, Some Losses for Indigenous Candidates in Midterm Vote

More than 90 Indigenous candidates ran in Tuesday’s U.S. midterm elections, with 11 congressional candidates.

Republican Markwayne Mullin, a citizen of the Cherokee Nation, will represent Oklahoma in the U.S. Senate, the first Native American in the Senate since former Sen. Ben Nighthorse Campbell, a Republican from Colorado, retired in 2005.

Representative Sharice Davids, a Kansas Democrat, won a third term in the U.S. House of Representatives.

Republican U.S. Rep. Tom Cole of the Chickasaw Nation will serve an 11th term in Oklahoma’s fourth congressional district.

Republican Gov. Kevin Stitt, a Cherokee citizen, won the governor’s race in Oklahoma.

Democrat Lynnette Grey Bull of the Northern Arapaho and Standing Rock Sioux tribes lost to Republican Harriet Hageman in the contest for Wyoming’s seat in the U.S. House.

Democrat Mary Peltola, an Alaska Native Yu'pik, leads Republican congressional candidate Sarah Palin for a permanent seat in Congress. Because the state uses a new ranked-choice voting system, however, final results may not be announced until later this month.

Native News Online is keeping track of the candidates; read more here.

FILE - Patrons at the San Manuel Indian Bingo & Casino play slot machines June 8, 2006, on the San Manuel Indian Reservation, Calif.
FILE - Patrons at the San Manuel Indian Bingo & Casino play slot machines June 8, 2006, on the San Manuel Indian Reservation, Calif.

California Tribes Retain Exclusive Gambling Rights

California voters overwhelmingly shot down two measures that would have legalized sports gambling.

Proposition 26 would have legalized sports betting at tribal casinos and allowed them to offer dice games and roulette. Proposition 27 would have authorized online and mobile sports betting.

Tribes supported Proposition 26, which would have expanded their gaming operations, but opposed Proposition 27, as it would have allowed online sports betting outside of Native American lands and diminished their gaming exclusivity.

Today, 76 California Indian gaming casinos are owned by 73 of the state's 109 Tribes, making California the nation's largest Indian gaming state with annual total revenues of nearly $9 billion.

Read more here.

Indigenous Youth Council members pray during a ceremony marking the return of sacred artifacts to the Lakota, Sat. Nov. 5, 2022, Barre Mass.
Indigenous Youth Council members pray during a ceremony marking the return of sacred artifacts to the Lakota, Sat. Nov. 5, 2022, Barre Mass.

After Two-decade Wait, Sacred Lakota Artifacts Are Home

A delegation of Oglala and Cheyenne River Lakota, and Wounded Knee Survivors Association members traveled to Barre, Massachusetts, to take back more than 130 artifacts from a museum that has held them for more than a century.

During a public ceremony at a local school, descendants spoke of their ancestors killed or wounded in the 1890 massacre that took the lives of hundreds of followers of Miniconjou Lakota leader Spotted Elk as they traveled to the Pine Ridge Reservation.

In 1992, a local anthropologist alerted the Wounded Knee Survivors Association about the artifacts held in the Barre Museum.

“I was shocked,” said Alex White Plume, a former Oglala president who was among a group of Lakota who traveled to Barre to see the items and appeal for their return.

“We went into the museum, and you could just sense the spirits,” he told VOA. “I saw baby clothes, totally beaded in just beautiful designs. And then I’d look on the back and there would be a big black hole where the bullet went through.”

If these things remained in the museum, White Plume said, their spirits would remain “captive on this earth.”

Once back at Pine Ridge, the artifacts will be stored at the Oglala Lakota College until the 130th anniversary of the massacre this December 29, when they will be honored in a ceremony and distributed between tribes.

Read more here.

Native American demonstrators stand outside of the U.S. Supreme Court, as the court hears arguments over the Indian Child Welfare Act, Wednesday, Nov. 9, 2022, in Washington.
Native American demonstrators stand outside of the U.S. Supreme Court, as the court hears arguments over the Indian Child Welfare Act, Wednesday, Nov. 9, 2022, in Washington.

Tribes Hopeful Indian Child Welfare Law Will Hold

This week, the U.S. Supreme Court heard arguments in a case that could decide not only the future of many Native American children but ultimately impact the sovereignty of Native American nations.

Brackeen v. Haaland began as a lawsuit challenging the Indian Child Welfare Act, a 1978 law passed to stop states from placing Native American children in non-Native American families, a practice many Native Americans believe to be a continuation of historic efforts at forced assimilation.

The suit was first brought in 2016 by three sets of prospective adoptive parents, each non-Native American and fostering Native American children. They were joined by the states of Texas, Indiana and Louisiana with backing from the conservative Goldwater Institute in taking the U.S. government to court to try to overturn the ICWA.

Now before the nation’s highest court, the suit argues that states should decide child welfare cases, not the federal government. Supporters say the law discriminates against non-Native families based on race, in violation of the Constitution’s equal protection clause.

The U.S. Constitution gives Congress, not states, plenary authority to deal with issues concerning Indian tribes.

“Here’s the truth,” Cherokee Nation Chief Chuck Hoskin Jr., said in a statement about the suit. “The U.S. Constitution recognizes tribes as sovereign nations, and courts have repeatedly recognized that tribal citizenship is a political classification. That may be an inconvenient fact for those who want to convince the court that ICWA violates the Constitution’s Equal Protection Clause, but neither the facts nor precedent are on their side.”

Tribes worry that if ICWA is modified or overturned, it could pave the way for constitutional challenges to other federal laws and policies impacting tribes, such criminal jurisdiction, casino gaming and tribal mineral rights. The court’s decision is expected next June.

Legal analyst and Supreme Court watcher Amy L. Howe notes that Court appeared divided.

"After more than three hours of oral argument, several justices expressed doubt about specific provisions of the wide-ranging law, even if they did not appear inclined to strike down the law in its entirety," she wrote. "Wednesday’s argument suggested a result that, although not what the federal government and the tribes might want, also might not be the catastrophic result that they have feared."

Read more here:

Justices Seem to Favor Most of Native Child Welfare Law

Demonstrators stand outside the U.S. Supreme Court as the court hears arguments over the Indian Child Welfare Act, Nov. 9, 2022, in Washington.

The U.S. Supreme Court appeared likely Wednesday to leave in place most of a federal law that gives preference to Native American families in foster care and adoption proceedings of Native children.

The justices heard more than three hours of arguments in a broad challenge to the Indian Child Welfare Act, enacted in 1978 to address concerns that Native children were being separated from their families and, too frequently, placed in non-Native homes.

It has long been championed by tribal leaders as a means of preserving their families, traditions and cultures. But white families seeking to adopt Native children are among the challengers who say the law is impermissibly based on race and prevents states from considering those children's best interests.

Justice Brett Kavanaugh called the case difficult because the court is being called on to draw a line between tribal sovereignty and "the fundamental principle that we don't treat people differently because of race, ethnicity or ancestry."

He was among the conservative justices who expressed concern about at least one aspect of the law that gives preference to Native parents, even if they are of a different tribe than the child they are seeking to adopt or foster. Chief Justice John Roberts, Justice Samuel Alito and Justice Amy Coney Barrett also raised questions about whether that provision looked more like a racial classification that the court might frown upon.

"To get to the heart of my concern about this, Congress couldn't give a preference for white families to adopt white children, Black families to adopt Black children, Latino families to adopt Latino children, Asian families to adopt Asian children," Kavanaugh said.

But none of the non-Native families involved in the case has been affected by the preference the conservative justices objected to, Justice Department lawyer Edwin Kneedler told the court.

Even if there is a court majority to strike down that provision, the rest of the law could be kept in place, said Ian Gershengorn, a lawyer for the Cherokee Nation, the Navajo Nation and other tribes.

He urged the court to uphold the law "that has made such a meaningful difference to so many children."

Representing the non-Native families, lawyer Matthew McGill called on the court to strike down the law because it "flouts the promise of equal justice under law."

Justice Neil Gorsuch, a conservative who is a strong supporter of Native Americans' rights, and the court's three liberal justices seemed strongly inclined to uphold the law in its entirety.

"Congress understood these children's placement decisions as integral to the continued thriving of Indian communities," said liberal Justice Elena Kagan.

Gorsuch said a broad ruling in favor of the challengers also would take "a huge bite out of" other federal programs that benefit Native Americans, including health care.

Most tribes ask court to uphold law

The law's fate is in the hands of a court that has made race a focus of its current term, in cases involving the redrawing of congressional districts and affirmative action in college admissions. Two members of the court, Roberts and Barrett, also are the parents of adopted children.

The full 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals struck down parts of the law last year, including preferences for placing Native children with Native adoptive families and in Native foster homes. It also said Congress overstepped its authority by imposing its will on state officials in adoption matters.

But the 5th Circuit also ruled that the law generally is based on the political relationship between the tribes and the U.S. government, not race.

The tribes and the Biden administration appealed some parts of the lower court ruling, while the white families and Texas, allied with those families, appealed others.

More than three-quarters of the 574 federally recognized tribes in the country have asked the high court to uphold the law in full, along with tribal organizations. They fear widespread impacts if the court attempts to dismantle the tribes' status as political sovereigns.

Support from state attorneys general

Nearly two dozen state attorneys general across the political spectrum filed a brief in support of the law. Some of those states have codified the federal law into their own state laws.

A ruling in favor of the families and Texas could undercut the 1978 law and, the tribes fear, have broader effects on their ability to govern themselves.

When child protection authorities remove Native children from their homes, the law requires states to notify tribes and seek placement with the child's extended family, members of the child's tribe, or other Native American families.

All of the children who have been involved in the current case at one point are enrolled or could be enrolled as Navajo, Cherokee, White Earth Band of Ojibwe and Ysleta del Sur Pueblo. Some of the adoptions have been finalized while some are still being challenged.

Before the Indian Child Welfare Act was enacted, between 25% and 35% of Native American children were being taken from their homes and placed with adoptive families, in foster care or in institutions. Most were placed with white families or in boarding schools in attempts to assimilate them.

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