Congress today has substantial and sweeping powers over Native nations and Native people, including the authority to abolish tribes and tribal reservations, and to expand or restrict tribal authority. These powers come from a series of Supreme Court decisions in the late 1800s and early 1900s that were based on racist views about American Indians—that Congress needed virtually unlimited authority over American Indian affairs because Natives were not equipped to govern themselves. The Court reasoned that Natives’ “weakness and helplessness” gave the federal government “broad domain” over them; later cases pointed to Natives’ “condition of tutelage or dependency.” Those decisions gave Congress more power when it comes to Native affairs than it has when it comes to taxing or spending or regulating interstate commerce.
But over time, these cases have come to produce different results. These same decisions have empowered Congress, in recent years, to protect Native families from various new and old forms of discrimination, imperialism, and white supremacy. The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit is poised to decide whether that will remain so. It will hear the case later today.
The case centers on the Indian Child Welfare Act (ICWA), which was designed to protect American Indian communities against state-led efforts to break up Native families. The challengers in the case—several Republican-led states and non-Native families seeking to adopt Native children—are attempting to invalidate ICWA’s restrictions on breaking up Native families and on non-Native families adopting Native children. In doing so, they risk undoing a set of doctrines that has facilitated tribes’ ability to govern themselves and prosecute individuals who victimize Native people.