In the 1950s thousands of Native American children were placed in Mormon homes for

'racial assimilation.' Now, experts fear an upcoming Supreme Court ruling could allow that to happen again.

One of the driving factors behind the Indian Child Welfare Act is the need to maintain ties to Native American culture. Joe Sohm/Visions of America/Universal Images Group via Getty Images

In January 2018, Chad and Jennifer Brackeen adopted a Navajo baby boy, winning a legal battle with the Navajo Nation after it sought to place the boy with a Navajo family. Soon after, the Texas couple looked to adopt his younger sister, but ran into more opposition: The girl's extended family wanted to take her in, too.

The Brackeens again took things to court, suing to overturn an act that gives preference to Native families in child custody proceedings.

The case has wound its way up to the highest court in America. This fall, the Supreme Court is reconsidering the Indian Child Welfare Act (ICWA) of 1978, which protects Native American children from being removed from their families and tribes. It was enacted after studies in 1969 and 1974 showed that 25 to 35% of all Native children were separated from their families and placed into foster homes, adoptive homes, or institutions.

The studies also revealed that 85% of all Native children in foster care were living in non-Indian homes, even when they had fit and willing relatives.

ICWA emerged in response to a long history of government and private actors removing Indian American children from their homes, buttressed by policies that divested Native American tribes of sovereignty, according to Dan Lerewenz, assistant professor at the University of North Dakota School of Law.

"Indian children have been pawns in both federal and state policy for hundreds of years," Lerewenz said.