Utah tribal leaders call it ‘injustice’ to hold up bill meant to protect Native kids

Utah’s eight sovereign tribes push for support on HB40, a bill that would codify the federal Indian Child Welfare Act of 1978, or ICWA, into Utah law.

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Manuel Heart, chairman of the Ute Mountain Ute Tribe, encourages Utah lawmakers to consider HB40 to make ICWA state law in Utah during a news conference at the Capitol on Tuesday, Jan. 31, 2023.

Manuel Heart nervously twisted his beaded bolo tie as he told the story of a young boy in his tribe who was forcibly removed from his home.

Utah child care workers, Heart recalled, decided that the boy was in poor health and should not be allowed to stay with his parents and six siblings in the Ute Mountain Ute Tribe. So a judge ordered his removal, and he was placed in a foster home with Non-native parents.

The boy grew up with them, Heart said, never learning about his Native culture or language. Attempts by his tribal family to visit him were brushed off or rescheduled. Heart believes something in the child was broken when he didn’t get a chance to understand where he came from.

When he was an adult and his foster parents later died, Heart said, he became even more lost. He turned to drugs and became homeless. And then, at a young age, he died.

“This boy that passed away,” Heart said, choking back tears, “was my little brother.”

The audience sitting in a small room at the Utah Capitol gasped and touched their chests in sympathy for Heart — as well as for other children they know who have had similar experiences.

Tribal leaders and members from some of Utah’s eight sovereign nations came to the statehouse Tuesday to share their stories and push for lawmakers to pass a bill to protect American Indian children in adoptions and foster placements. Native children, they said, should only be placed with Native parents who will help them stay in touch with their identities.

“We don’t want this for our children, to get lost in the system,” Heart said after talking about his brother.

As he stood at the podium, delegates, council members and presidents from tribes across the state lined up behind him and nodded in agreement.

The tribal leaders stood united to voice their support for HB40, a Utah proposal that would take the provisions of the U.S. Indian Child Welfare Act of 1978, or ICWA, which protects against removing Indigenous children from their tribes, and codify it into state law here.

The federal law is currently being weighed by the Supreme Court over arguments about its constitutionality. It was originally put into place after, for decades, systems took Indigenous children from their homes and placed them with institutions or families with no ties, where many children reported abuse.

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Nizhoni Guthrie makes a statement with her jacket, while attending a news conference encouraging Utah lawmakers to consider passing HB40 which would make ICWA state law in Utah during a news conference at the Capitol on Tuesday, Jan. 31, 2023.

The Utah version is supported by the state’s attorney general, governor and lieutenant governor.

But so far this session, it has been held up in committee on technicalities.

Last week, the House Judiciary Committee voted 7-5 to hold the bill from advancing to a floor vote. Republican lawmakers said they were concerned about possible confusions with tribal laws and state laws and how to define “extended family members” with whom Native children can be placed. Others said the bill would not be necessary unless the Supreme Court decides to nullify ICWA.

“I’m just hesitant because when I vote on a statute,” said Rep. Nelson Abbott, R-Orem, “I want to be able to read it and understand it, and I want other people, whether it’s a judge or an attorney trying to work it or just a member of the public, to know what it means. And I’m not sure we’re here with this.”

On Tuesday, Heart and others pleaded with the Legislature to hear the bill again. “Put this bill on the agenda,” he said.

“We are asking our state government to stand with the eight tribes of Utah on this,” added Eugenia Charles-Newton, a delegate of the Navajo Nation Council.

She talked about the history in the United States of the government removing Native children from their homes, from the 1800s up to the 1970s. Indigenous kids were adopted and separated from their families. Some were put in placement programs, including one in Utah run by The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

And they were sent to boarding schools, she said, where “their culture was literally beaten out of them” and many died and were buried in unmarked graves; that includes eight schools in Utah, with one in Panguitch where the Paiute tribe is currently working to do ground survey work to locate 12 missing kids.

Corrina Bow, chairwoman of the Paiute Indian Tribe of Utah, is overseeing that project for her people. She said Tuesday that it is ongoing and urged support for HB40 as a way to rectify the past and protect Indigenous kids in the future.

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Corrina Bow, chairwoman for the Paiute Indian Tribe of Utah, says a few words encouraging Utah lawmakers to consider passing HB40 which would make ICWA state law in Utah during a news conference at the Capitol on Tuesday, Jan. 31, 2023.

“Am I wrong to think the representatives for Utah represent all of us, all of our people?” she asked. “To table HB40 on a minor technicality, knowing this bill is so important to all of our eight sovereign nations of Utah, is injustice.”

The crowd clapped in agreement.

“For too long,” added Germaine Simonson, also a delegate of the Navajo Nation Council, “federal policies have dismantled our families and taken our children. We want the opportunity to heal from those federal policies.”

The best way to do that, she said, is for tribal members to be able to embrace their culture and language and teach it to their children.

“They’re our most valuable resource,” said Heart.

Rep. Christine Watkins, R-Price, who is sponsoring HB40, said she is frustrated by the “hiccup” that has stopped the bill. But she said that she and others are working to talk to the committee members about the importance of ICWA and why Utah needs to write it into state law to protect children.

“I hope we can get it across the finish line,” she said.

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Rep. Christine Watkins, R-Price, sponsor of HB40, says a few words about the bill that would make ICWA state law in Utah during a news conference at the Capitol on Tuesday, Jan. 31, 2023.

Making ICWA state law would mean the federal rules for Native adoptions would apply here, regardless of what the Supreme Court does.

The law keeps Native foster kids with Native parents — preferably with someone from their tribe or, if not possible, with another tribe. It prioritizes family connections. Non-Native foster parents are a last resort.

The Native American Legislative Liaison Committee voted in November to unanimously support running the bill.

The issue was also previously championed by the late Rupert Steele, formerly the chairman of the Confederated Tribes of the Goshutes in west-central Utah, who died last week.

He had pushed for the bill to be run this session, describing his own experience living in fear as a child that he would be taken away from his family. He described the removal of Indigenous kids from their tribes as a form of cultural erasure and assimilation. Putting ICWA in law, he said, was a “corrective action” for the past.

On Tuesday, Hope Jackson, a council woman for the Confederated Tribes of the Goshute Indian Reservation, proudly stood for what Steele had believed in.

And she shared the story of her five cousins who were removed from their home as kids. One day, she was playing with them, she said, and suddenly the girls were all gone.

One of the cousins later returned to the tribe, but never was able to learn to speak her Native language, Jackson said. The one who came back doesn’t know what happened to her sisters. Like Heart, she said, she holds that story close to her.

These are the horrors, she said, that they have lived through and that many have similar experiences with. They don’t want to have them happen again to their children, cousins, sisters and brothers.

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Eugenia Charles-Newton, a delegate of the Navajo Nation Council, says a few words encouraging Utah lawmakers to consider a bill to make ICWA state law in Utah during a news conference at the Capitol on Tuesday, Jan. 31, 2023.

Correction: This story has been updated to reflect the correct spelling of Manuel Heart.