The system

 





Every adopted child presumably has honest questions about his orher identity, but if that child also happens to be an Alaska Nativethere's a diverse crowd of people, many of them strangers on theouter circles of the child's life, asking similar questions.

Angel Gonzalez, now 22, was one of those children. She was inand out of state-run foster care throughout her youth, mainly dueto her mother's too-frequent relapses into alcoholism.

Gonzalez is half-Yupik and half-Hispanic and was born about adecade after the U.S. Congress passed the Indian Child Welfare Act(ICWA). The law takes family rights-think of the rights ofgrandparents or aunts and uncles-and extends them to the entiretribe. In Alaska that generally translates into a tribe monitoringcourt hearings in regards to one of its members. Sometimes therelationship between tribes and the state itself becomes thesubject of lawsuits. The courts have reaffirmed tribal sovereigntytwice in the last six months, most recently in the Alaska SupremeCourt opinion that struck down policy documents that tried toassert state's "exclusive jurisdiction" in child custody cases. Thecourt wants the state to recognize the "inherent sovereign rights"of tribes, but also said the details of the case were not specificenough to define where those rights may be limited if it comes downto a legal argument with the state.

Gonzalez's childhood included some knowledge of ICWA. The words"Indian child" were part of some of the decisions adults made forAngel and her two brothers. She knew a tribe was monitoring herlife, but she was also an urban Alaskan-and in her own words, an"opinionated" child. One opinion was a hope. Gonzalez hoped to beadopted into the family of Mechele and Ricky Adams, anAfrican-American couple who became her foster parents while she was13 and, eventually, became adoptive parents to Gonzalez and one herbrothers. Gonzalez credits them with encouraging her to exploreYupik culture. But Gonzalez, even though her tribe never attemptedto take custody of her, believes her own adoption was slowed byICWA and by a tribal authority looking over the state'sshoulder.

"The process with the tribes took so long," Gonzalez says. "Iunderstand it, but I didn't-and I still don't-fully agree with it.I understand why they do what they do, their culture is beingdiminished."

Concurrent jurisdictions almost necessarily lead to complicatedand sticky issues of sovereignty and control. Who goes first, thetribe or the state? Would a state-certified adoption necessarilyfollow a tribal adoption? Could the state intervene even after atribe placed the child in a family? Can a tribe intervene when thestate seems set to approve an adoption?

Last month the state Supreme Court killed the state's appeal ina case that pitted the Native Village of Tanana against the statein a battle over a replacement birth certificate for an adoptivefamily. The court overturned an opinion written in 2004 bythen-Attorney General Gregg Renkes, who wrote about the state's"exclusive jurisdiction" based on previous Alaska case.

Renkes's opinion held that a tribe could handle a child custodycase only if it first began in state court and was transferred tothe tribal court. He also wrote that state agencies should stoprecognizing tribal court decrees.

"The A.G. opinion was very, very limiting," says HeatherKendall-Miller, an attorney with the Native American Rights Fundwho argued on the village's behalf. "It told state workers, 'Wedon't work with tribes,'" Kendall-Miller says. She says only twovillages, Barrow and Chevak, would have been qualified to makechild custody decisions under the Renkes opinion.

The Native rights organization counted the ruling as a victory,issuing a press release calling it a "broad affirmation of inherenttribal authority"-the ruling also reached back into state law andoverturned remnants of cases Renkes had based his opinion on.Kendall-Miller says it will make a real difference in how the statehandles child welfare issues "on the ground" saying it erased partof a conflict between state law and the federal ICWA-spawnedrules.

So far the state hasn't said much. Department of Law spokesmanBill McAllister says state lawyers still say there are unansweredquestions and some ambiguities in the ruling. A spokeswoman for thestate Department of Health says the court ruling hasn't yet spawnedchanges at the Office of Child Services. Even the Supreme Courtjustices seem to hedge their bets. The ruling they adopted saysthat a "lack of specific facts precludes us from defining theextent of any individual tribe's inherent sovereign jurisdiction"in child custody proceedings.

In the Tanana case, an adoption was arranged by the village fora child with disabilities to become part of a Fairbanks family.When the tribe applied for a replacement birth certificate, it wassent to the adoptive family. Renkes's opinion was issued later thatyear.

"The hands of justice do not move swiftly, so they were on holdfor about seven years," Kendall-Miller says. "So they wereconcerned that services [for the disabled child] could be cutoff."

Services to the family were not cut off. Because of that,Kendall-Miller admits that the case may seem academic. But effortsby the Village of Tanana to monitor this open adoption after thestate issued a substitute birth certificate could have beenthwarted under the Renkes opinion. The state had also rewrittensome policies to bring them in line with Renkes's opinion. Fiveother villages that issue child welfare decrees joined Tanana whenthe NARF filed the lawsuit. Kendall-Miller says the Murkowskiadministration scrapped some tribe-friendly policies adopted by theadministration of the previous governor, Tony Knowles. (Those hadfollowed a lawsuit over a tribal adoption, too.)

As an adult, Angel Gonzalez is involved in the lives of fosteryouth, working for a mentoring program in Anchorage. She's alsobeen in and out of college, studying psychology and art. She grewup switching constantly between her mother's custody and astate-run foster care system. She practiced drawing. Art, she says,"was something they couldn't take away from me" as the state movedher between foster families. Her portfolio is stocked with studiesof human forms, many of them faceless. There is also a cartoonrhinoceros, a high contrast image in which the animal seems tomarch though a storm with steam coming from one nostril.

She has just a few memories of southwest Alaska that spring fromtwo, or maybe three, summertime trips there when she was veryyoung. Her birth mother died without connecting her children totheir roots. "I do remember seeing my grandmother dance," Gonzalezsays. "I remember the drums were very loud and that bothered me-Iwas really small."

But the time Gonzalez was a teenager she was using the phrase"Yes, but I am also Hispanic," when anyone asked about her race,even though her Hispanic father was out of her life while she wasstill a toddler. "Eventually I would claim only my Hispanicculture; I would learn everything I possibly could about that partof me," she wrote in an essay two years ago.

Her essay doesn't discuss the legal paths to adoption, butfocuses on a personal journey to self-identification. That tooktime, Gonzalez writes, and wouldn't have happened without apermanent family. "To say I have fully overcome the obstacles toembracing my heritage would be deceitful," Gonzalez wrote."...[but] I have improved greatly, and I hold my head up high whenI say that I am Yupik Alaska Native."

Gonzalez says her life took a turn because her adoptive parentsurged her to explore Yupik culture. Much of what she identifies asher Native culture today comes from urban sources, specifically atWest High School and the Alaska Native Heritage Center.

She's acutely aware of the shortage of foster families inAlaska. She's also aware of the shortage of Alaska Native familiesin the state's foster care program. She counted six homes, and sixdifferent schools in one semester during her middle school years.She lost count of the total number of foster homes she lived in.One was Yupik, she says.

Gonzalez might be the person ICWA was meant to benefit, but shedoesn't see much sense in the big-picture politics of tribalsovereignty or court battles and the headlines they generate. "Itseems so ass-backwards, especially when there is a shortage ofNative families," she says. "Momma and Daddy gave us a lovinghome-that's what really counts."

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