The Supreme Court Must Protect ICWA to Avoid Added Risk for Native Children

Like all of us here at Partnership With Native Americans (PWNA), I am committed to the well-being of Native American children. But Brackeen vs. Haaland and the upcoming Supreme Court review of the constitutionality of the Indian Child Welfare Act (ICWA) may put Native children at risk. Prior to joining PWNA, I worked with after-school, youth and foster care programs and volunteered for the Kansas court-based Citizen Review Board for child welfare, so this issue is near and dear to my heart.

Congress passed ICWA in 1978 in response to two factors: the steady and often unwarranted removal of Native youth from their families and tribes, and studies showing that such removal leaves the children with identity issues… growing up not knowing who they are, who they’re connected to and where they belong. In a 1977 Senate committee hearing, Chairman James Abourezk (D-SD) said “welfare agencies appeared to be acting on the idea that ‘most Indian children would really be better off growing up non-Indian.’”

If the Supreme Court overturns ICWA, Native children would lose the very protections that keep them connected to their families, heritage and culture. Tribal communities would also lose their future generations. Scores of states, tribes and child welfare agencies realize this, and support the Protect ICWA Campaign launched by the National Indian Child Welfare Association ,the Native American Rights Fund, the National Congress of American Indians and the Association of American Indian Affairs.

Even with ICWA, Native children are much more likely to be put into foster care than whites. They represent just 1 percent of children in the country yet 2.6 percent of children placed in foster care. Opening Native placements to non-Native families will amplify the historical trauma caused by colonization and add new generational risk going forward.

Challenging the constitutionality of ICWA only muddies the waters. One claim is that ICWA racially discriminates against non-Native foster families. Another claim goes to whether Congress has power over state child-custody proceedings based on whether a child is Native (or power to enforce states to follow the regulation). Conversely, many argue that ICWA is not based on race but on the political relationship between the U.S. government and tribes as sovereign nations.

If ICWA is overturned, who will benefit? It certainly won’t be the children. In fact, even new BIA guidelines reportedly state that ‘the best interest of the child is not a consideration.” In some ways, a reversal of ICWA would be akin to the forced removal of children from their families and communities, only to put them in Indian boarding schools – many never to be seen again. What then is the motivation behind reviewing a 44-year-old law and precedent?

Nearly 500 tribes, hundreds of supporters, and even 87 members of Congress support ICWA as the abiding standard in Native child welfare. PWNA joins them in supporting the rights of tribes as sovereign nations and the need prevent any further cultural erasure among Native children, families and tribes.

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The Inflation Reduction Act: Indigenous Communities Need More

Spending a dime while earning a nickel? Remember when gas was $1 per gallon? Costs are rapidly increasing, but paychecks across America are not keeping pace. While some are fortunate enough to remain comfortable despite the prolonged inflation, many more are struggling to make ends meet. In fact, in one poll, 69% of Native Americans say inflation is severely affecting their lives. The impact is worse because approximately 27% of Native Americans were living in poverty even before 2022 inflation, compared to 15% for the rest of America.  

So, what does this mean for Native people? Rising gas prices are more challenging on the reservations, with gas stations, clinics and grocery stores few and far between. The rising food prices are a double whammy, with one in four Native families experiencing food insecurity even before the pandemic and current inflation.

And let’s talk about those grocery stores. Many reservation communities are designated as food deserts by the U.S. Dept. of Agriculture. In a rural setting, this means the closest store is 10 or more miles away. In many cases, it’s up to an hour away. For instance, although it spans nearly 27,000 miles, there are only 13 grocery stores across the Navajo Nation. Can you imagine the gas cost for getting to these stores?

In August, President Biden signed the Inflation Reduction Act to “meet the climate crisis and build an economy that works for working families, including Tribal nations and American Indian, Alaska Native, and Native Hawaiian families.” The Inflation Reduction Act lowers prescription drug, health care and energy costs. While this is a good start, Indigenous communities need more to combat the current inflation impact(s), historic marginalization/disenfranchisement and ineffective federal policies.

Partnership With Native Americans (PWNA) maintains partnerships with hundreds of tribal programs (our Program Partners) to bring much-needed relief to 250,000 Native Americans each year. We deliver critical goods and services to remote reservation communities that most Americans never see and most organizations cannot reach – whether due to geography, or a lack of Native contacts, cultural competency or insights about specific needs. We operate a highly efficient warehouse and distribution system that lets us truck about 5 million pounds of materials to the reservations each year, and our Program Partners ensure these goods get to the people who need them. In addition, PWNA supports long-term solutions such as scholarships and leadership development, ancestral nutrition training for healthier diets and emergency preparedness.

Are you looking for a way to help? Join PWNA in our efforts toward racial and social equity by donating today.

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This North Texas Day, Join Us to Remember Native American Students

Education is a cornerstone of economic mobility and self-sufficiency, yet it is often out of reach for Native American students. With up to 61% of Indigenous children living in poverty or low-income households, many Native families struggle to keep healthy food on the table, let alone afford tuition, school supplies or technology required for learning.

The end result? Many Native students simply don’t believe that college is an option for them – with odds like this stacked against them, how could they? Only 16% of Native Americans hold a college degree, whereas 40% of their white peers do. In part, this is because less than one percent of all charitable giving supports Native causes.

So how do we change this? Here’s one great way to start: Participate in North Texas Giving Day to help Partnership With Native Americans (PWNA) support Native education!

Americans view going to college as a basic human right, but it’s not a given for Native students. That’s why PWNA prioritizes American Indian education from ‘cradle to college and career’ to champion hope and prosperity in tribal communities.

Our whole focus is to increase access so that more Native students have the resources and encouragement they need to learn and succeed. Once in college, freshman year presents extraordinary challenges for Native students. So, we help with more than just funding. Our scholarship recipients may also receive welcome packages, laptops, mentoring, holiday care packages, and more to ensure their success.

By harnessing the power of education, these future leaders can bring about positive changes in their own lives and tribal communities. Even a two-year degree means a graduate can earn $10,000+ per year than a high school grad in today’s economy.

Headquartered in Addison right outside of Dallas, Texas, Partnership With Native Americans (PWNA) is a national, Native-led 501c3 nonprofit serving Indian Country since 1990. We see the struggles Native Americans are facing every day – but we also see youth break through generational trauma, blaze new pathways and head toward a brighter future through education.

When you choose to fund Native education, you are making a deliberate choice to feed the dreams not only of students today but of future generations. Join us in giving back to your community by supporting Native American students in North Texas! Your donation means the world to us, but hurry – the deadline is midnight on September 22!

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Tuition Waiver for Native Students Must Be Replicated Nationwide

Now is the time for all higher education systems in America to waive tuition for Native American students, regardless of residency, tribe or which college they attend. This would help fulfill the longstanding educational goals of our American Indian Education Fund (AIEF), the American Indian College Fund and other Native nonprofits to increase higher education access for Native American students.

Contrary to what many U.S. citizens believe, college is not free for Native Americans, and only now are we seeing movement along those lines. Recently, the University of California higher education system announced it would waive tuition and student services fees for all California residents who are members of federally recognized tribes; we’ve seen a select few state school systems do this. Some schools now guarantee admission for certain tribal members, like the Potawatomi to Notre Dame or the Seminoles to Florida State. Fort Lewis College in Colorado, a former Indian boarding school turned public liberal arts college with Indigenous students comprising more than 10% of its student body, now waives tuition and fees for any student with enrollment in a federally recognized tribe. Going even further, states such as New Mexico and Oklahoma now guarantee education access for all residents – Native and non-Native alike.

All this is a welcome step forward. But across the U.S., there are many more Native students who are not covered by these tuition and fee waivers or college funding from their tribes. In fact, the exorbitant costs of a college education in this country are out of reach for many, and for every Native student who applies for an AIEF scholarship, approximately six more are awaiting funding.

In addition, while 574 tribes are federally recognized, more than 400 other tribes are not – making college loans the next best option. However, low wages or joblessness, family commitments and persistent food and housing insecurity make large college loans unfeasible for so many Native families, especially those living on rural and remote reservations. How are Native students to excel under these conditions?

Tuition waivers are a significant way for higher education institutions to increase the number of talented Native students attending their schools, open the doors to opportunity and make up for a legacy of underrepresentation while confronting a shameful legacy in American history. Today, the discovery of mass graves at many former boarding school sites reminds us about this horrific legacy that our people must navigate. Moreover, it seems our government is only now reflecting on the ways in which our nation must address the atrocities these federal boarding schools generated. Higher education institutions can also follow suit. 

Higher education has long been the pathway to the so-called ‘American Dream’ – but the descendants of the original inhabitants of this land need a chance to be a part of it. I genuinely hope the size and impact of the University of California system and its decision to waive tuition and fees for select Native students will influence more and bigger national changes. Our Native American students need a pathway to be future leaders and to have a seat at the table shaping the policies and practices that will impact Tribal communities and our country going forward.

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More College and Career Readiness for Native Students

This summer, PWNA partnered with NABI Nation during the 2022 Native American Basketball Invitational (aka NABI Week) to sponsor college and career readiness events for over 1,300 Native student athletes. As the tournament was playing out over five days in Phoenix, Arizona, PWNA and our American Indian Education Fund (AIEF) program hosted back-to-back events to drive academic and professional development for these students. The fundamentals of an education are critical at a young age and only half of Native students who start kindergarten will go on to graduate high school, let alone attend college. In addition, some education barriers are unique to Native students, and incredible opportunities like NABI help address this.

Kicking off the week with the NABI College & Career Fair, we staffed a table with information on AIEF scholarships for students interested in attending a university, community college, tribal college or vocational trade school. Only 16% of Native Americans hold a bachelor’s degree, so it was encouraging that AIEF information reached the youth in attendance. Excited students stopped to talk with staff, learned about the scholarships and provide their contact information for more guidance on their next steps.

The career fair was followed by the NABI Educational Youth Summit with words of wisdom from diverse Native leaders. PWNA president and CEO Joshua Arce (Potawatomi) started the series, giving a nod to Native beauty, knowledge and resilience, then introduced Shawn Martinez, Senior Director of Live Presentations for the Phoenix Suns and Mercury basketball teams. Shawn (Navajo) immediately connected with the audience by reviewing his career as a DJ, how to overcome obstacles in pursuit of a passion and the role of education in success. He advised, “Education and grades are important. They will open more doors than you think.”  

After an encouraging welcome from Governor Stephen Lewis (Gila River) and a message from Phoenix College Student Services Director Michael Matos on finding a path to college, Josh returned for a presentation on leadership development. Relating to the students through his own love of basketball and hip-hop, Josh underscored the importance of understanding one’s identity and finding a recipe for success – from taking risks to being accountable and spiritually centered. “Our nations absolutely need you,” he said, “and your peers need you as well.” Sharing his thoughts on education and goal setting, he emphasized, “The only place where reward comes before work is in the dictionary.”

The summit included two training sessions on digital skills as part of the Grow With Google Indigenous Career Readiness Program. Because two-thirds of all new jobs created since 2010 require at least medium-level digital skills, Google aims to ensure Native American students have access to digital skills to thrive in the workforce.

AIEF alumni Valeriah Big Eagle talked about funding. She shared, “the statistics are already against you — focus on your classes and your schooling. Speak from your heart and tell your story.”  The youth also heard from pro basketball player and NABI alum Analyss Benally, who highlighted her career and advice on transitioning from rez basketball to the pros, stressing how the only way to get there is through schoolwork and encouraging students to be resilient.

PWNA is proud to partner with NABI to encourage these Native student athletes to look ahead to their next steps. You can help students like these – “the future of Indian country” – when you donate to AIEF.

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Pros & Cons of Section 184 Loans for Native Home Ownership

For many tribal citizens, the dream of owning a home has been out of reach. Whether it be a house, condo or manufactured home, the road to homeownership can be a long, complicated and tricky process. Besides navigating low income, credit score and a need for financial literacy, the process is hindered by additional factors for Native Americans living on the reservations. Why? Because reservations are trust lands held for a tribe but owned by the U.S. government. But one home mortgage product is specifically designed to help American Indian and Alaska Native families living on tribal lands – the Section 184 Indian Home Loan Guarantee Program started in 1992.

Personally, I would not have qualified for my first home if it weren’t for the Section 184 program. Guaranteed by HUD, it offers Native borrowers more flexibility, including:

  • Smaller down payments (1.25% for loans under $50,000; 2.25% for higher loans)
  • Reduced mortgage insurance (0.25% if you have less than 22% home equity)
  • No minimum credit score, so no impact on lending rate

The Section 184 program has made Native home ownership more accessible, and today 50.8% of Native American families own their homes. Another benefit I didn’t realize is that the Section 184 loan program can be used multiple times for homes on tribal lands.

While these loans can help open the door to home ownership, there are some realities to keep in mind:

  • Section 184 is a very niche program, so many lenders and realtors are unfamiliar with it; Native neobanks (online banks) are likely to be more knowledgeable.
  • Because low credit scores are accepted, lenders tend to drill down into the debt-to-income ratio and can ask more invasive questions about your financial indebtedness – if you want the loan, you will need to comply.
  • The loans are not available in every state including Georgia, Tennessee, and Ohio.

Although a Section 184 loan is more attainable, there is still the reality of maintaining a 15- or 30-year mortgage payment. Prospective buyers and current Native homeowners can benefit from taking a few homebuyer courses online to increase financial literacy and cashflow management.

Whether you choose a Section 184 loan or traditional financing, owning a home as a Native American is a critical step to building generational wealth and setting up your family for long-term financial stability.

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Will You Help Native Children on the First Day of School?

Can you remember the first day of a new school year: how excited you felt to buy new clothes and a fresh pair of sneakers, how meticulously you chose your backpack for the year and the excitement you felt with your friends? These back-to school memories are unfamiliar to some children, such as those living on remote reservations where jobs and shopping are limited.

Many Native American families are struggling to make ends meet, choosing between groceries, electricity and gasoline while pushing luxuries like school supplies lower on the list. With up to 61% of Native children living in poverty or low-income households, basics like school supplies that most children take for granted can be difficult to obtain.

The many Bureau of Indian Education (BIE) schools on the reservations are understaffed and ill-equipped to help. In fact, according to the Huffington Post, the BIE operates 183 K-12 schools, of which 127 are in “poor” or “fair” condition and 73 lack the funding for needed repairs, according to BIE data from 2021. The conditions and underfunding faced by BIE schools and the children inside them are a result of the U.S. government’s failure to uphold its treaty obligations to Native peoples. The tribes gave up millions of acres of land in exchange for treaty promises, many of them long since broken and all of them underfunded.

That is why Partnership With Native Americans (PWNA) helps K-12 children every year, through the Annual Backpack Drive hosted by our American Indian Education Fund (AIEF) program. This year, we will provide at least 15,000 Native American students with backpacks before the start of the school year, each one filled with pencils, notebooks, markers and other essentials that will help these children succeed in their education.

But we need your assistance to meet this goal. Your donation can be the difference between a child falling behind in their studies or being ready to learn in the classroom. You can shop in our online store or donate here.

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#LandBack After 350 Years for the Rappahannock Tribe

One of the greatest initiatives in play right now for Tribal communities is the grassroots #LandBack movement, with Native citizens and allies advocating for the return of lands wrongfully taken from the tribes. Also helping the cause, the Land Buy-Back Program for Tribal Nations established after the Cobell settlement of 2009 provided funding to consolidate fractionated tribal lands and return land ownership to rightful parties. In my region, one group benefiting from the #LandBack movement is the Rappahannock Tribe.

Jerry Fortune, Rappahannock Tribe

After working nearly 100 years for federal recognition that was finally secured in 2018, the Rappahannocks recently celebrated another historic win. This time, it’s the reacquisition of 465 acres of their sacred ancestral homelands, thanks to a partnership with the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation and the Chesapeake Conservancy.

The Rappahannocks lived along the recently reacquired Fones Cliffs in at least three villages —Wecuppom, Matchopick and Pissacoac— before European settlers seized the land some 350 years ago. One of the most important places to the tribe, Fones Cliffs are a four-mile stretch along the eastern side of the Rappahannock River, about 37 miles south of Fredericksburg and about 50 miles from the Chesapeake Bay in Virginia. The tribe can trace their history to this area decades before Captain John Smith arrived on their shores in 1607.

“My people have lived here since the beginning,” said Rappahannock Chief Anne Richardson. “Rappahannocks would have been able to look down both sides of the river here and see potential enemies or guests coming before they ever got here. And so, this was a very strategic place for them to live, for many reasons.” Now centuries later, they’re looking for artifacts from the three villages once located there. “It’s a race against time, development and climate change.”

Chief Richardson said, “We have worked for many years to restore this sacred place to the Tribe. With eagles being prayer messengers, this area where they gather has always been a place of natural, cultural and spiritual importance.” The tribe plans to build walking trails along the river and a replica of a 16th-century village where tribal members can educate the public about their history.

Native land buyback is no small feat for any tribe. PWNA president & CEO Joshua Arce discusses the complicated process of land buyback to regain possession of land the government previously took from the tribes, often breaking treaties in the process and then giving it to non-Native landowners.

“We just want to be back here,” says Chief Richardson. “And we want our children to be back here and to learn about the cliffs. We’re not trying to take everybody’s land up. We’re not interested in that. We just want our portion. A little equity goes around a long way.” We couldn’t agree more.

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Summer Care Packages Help Native Elders Combat Harsh Southwest Realities

The scorching desert sun, substandard housing without air conditioning and a lack of safe drinking water are just a few of the hazardous conditions faced by Native American Elders living on rural reservation lands each summer.

Life on remote reservations can be harsh. Jobs are scarce and grocery stores and health care are often hours away. During the Southwest summers, severe heat, drought and fires mean many cannot leave their homes for months at a time.

Partnership With Native Americans (PWNA) supports reservations that deal with frequent environmental disasters such as floods, blizzards, ice storms, tornadoes and hurricanes. Wildfires such as the Hermits Peak and Calf Canyon fires recently making their way toward Picuris Pueblo in New Mexico spread at an alarming and dangerous rate. Some reservation communities also experience acute or chronic contaminated-water emergencies.

In addition, 35-85% of Native Americans living on the reservations PWNA serves are jobless, and Elders often care for their grandchildren — struggling to meet their own needs and the needs of little ones.

In the face of these conditions, PWNA is preparing emergency shipments of Summer Care Packages. Filled to the brim with necessities like first aid supplies, personal care items, baby supplies, batteries, water and nonperishable food, these packages can be a lifeline for Native American Elders.  

These Summer Care Packages are part of PWNA’s Emergency Services offerings. PWNA provides other seasonal services for Native Elders and is quick to respond with disaster relief for the tribes in and beyond our normal service area. You can donate here to help ensure Native Elders can withstand the harsh realities of summer in the Southwest.

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Olo for Good Donates $150,000 for PWNA to Distribute Ancestral Foods

Olo for Good was launched in 2021 by parent company Olo, a leading open SaaS platform for restaurants, to integrate social impact and responsibility into their business. With Olo for Good, they joined the Pledge 1% movement, committing one percent of their time, product and equity to initiatives that foster sustainable contributions in communities where their employees live, work and serve.

As part of their 2022 Pledge 1% commitment, an Olo employee nominated PWNA and we received a generous grant of $150,000 from the Olo for Good Fund, a Donor-Advised Fund of Tides Foundation, to support food sovereignty and safety in Native communities. PWNA will use this grant in two ways – to support our first-ever ancestral foods distribution and to distribute Watts of Love portable solar lights, both to Tribal communities in the Northern Plains and Southwest regions of the U.S.

Native Americans suffer from the highest rates of food insecurity, poverty, diet-related diseases and other challenges due to historic and present-day systemic and institutional inequities. One out of every four Indigenous families experiences food insecurity, compared to one in nine Americans overall.

While it is imperative to improve food access, it is also important to explore complementary solutions, especially those that promote food sovereignty for Native Americans. Food sovereignty is the right of peoples to healthy and culturally appropriate food produced through ecologically sound and sustainable methods as well as the right to define their own food and agriculture systems. Tribal communities have begun to revisit solutions rooted in food sovereignty as an answer to food insecurity

Among Native Americans, there is a strong desire for stewardship of cultural resources to increase access to traditional foods, as well as strengthen skills for self-reliance, including support for home food production. For many Native Americans, food sovereignty is the ultimate long-term solution to eliminate food insecurity, according to Feeding America. Their recommendation is that anyone working with tribes strive to support the Native food sovereignty movement by increasing funding for the purchase of traditional, locally sourced foods like bison, wild rice, salmon, catfish and blue cornmeal.

Thanks to this grant from the Olo for Good fund, PWNA will be able to purchase Native ancestral foods from Native producers and distribute them to the Native communities for the first time in our organization’s history. Alongside PWNA’s Native-led, peer-to-peer ancestral foods training that teaches individuals how to prepare traditional Indigenous meals, this ancestral foods distribution will complement food sovereignty efforts in the Tribal communities PWNA serves.

PWNA will also use a small portion of the grant to purchase and distribute portable solar lights from Watts of Love. Often, Native homes lack sufficient electricity and lighting infrastructure, increasing the use of costly solutions and decreasing the amount of time available to tribal citizens for daily activities. Insufficient lighting also increases the danger of walking outside after dark. The portable solar lights PWNA plans to distribute will address all these issues of savings, safety and productivity. The Watts of Love portable solar lights can also support emergency response efforts on the reservations, affording a bright “strobe” light effect for easier rescues and helping emergency responders mobilize more efficiently at night.

This generous funding will truly support Native priorities. PWNA is humbled and grateful for Olo’s support and dedication to advancing meaningful aspects of racial and ethnic equity and inclusion, while also decreasing food insecurity and increasing safety in diverse communities.

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