How an Ojibwe grandmother’s adoption fight in Minnesota ended up in the U.S. Supreme Court

For six years, a Native woman from the White Earth Band fought for custody of her granddaughter. In November, her struggle will be heard by the U.S. Supreme Court. The case, Brackeen v. Haaland, threatens the federal law protecting the bond between Native American children and their families and tribes.

Interior Secretary Deb Haaland at Riverside Indian School in Anadarko, Oklahoma, in July 2022. Credit: Nick Oxford

This article is being co-published with The Imprint, a national nonprofit news outlet covering child welfare and youth justice.

Three white couples who sought to adopt Indigenous children will have their legal cases heard by the U.S. Supreme Court next month. Each of the foster families, including a couple from Minnesota, says the 1978 Indian Child Welfare Act discriminated against them because of their race.

The law, known as ICWA, ensures that tribes have a right to intervene when their members are involved in child welfare cases. And it requires that local governments make extra efforts to protect connections with Indigenous culture and kin. The outcome of the case challenging ICWA, Brackeen v. Haaland, has far-reaching implications: not only for the battle against family separation in Indian Country, but potentially for the foundational rights of tribes in relation to the U.S. government.

Two of the couples—Jennifer Kay and Chad Everet Brackeen of Texas, and Heather Lynn and Frank Nicholas Libretti of Nevada—gained full custody of the Native children they wanted to adopt.

One of the three sets of plaintiffs in the Brackeen v. Haaland case did not.

Like the other two couples, Danielle and Jason Clifford of Minnesota ran into laws enacted to address centuries of destructive government policies. Native children have historically been forced to attend abusive boarding schools and systematically placed for adoption into non-Native homes.