Mississippi Band of Choctaw Indians v. Holyfield, 490 U.S. 30 (1989), was a case in which the Supreme Court of the United States held that the Indian Child Welfare Act governed adoptions of Indian children, and a tribal court had jurisdiction over a state court regardless of the location of birth of the child if the child or the natural parents resided on the reservation.
From 1850 to about 1960, American Indian children were forcibly taken from their families and their tribes to go to Indian boarding schools, in what has been described as both efforts at assimilation and genocide. At the schools, Indian children were expected to speak English and practice Christianity; they were punished for speaking their own language. Reformers wanted the Indians to choose "assimilation over extinction." In 1890 approximately 12,000 Indian children were attending Indian boarding schools, and, according to the Commissioner of Indian Affairs:
The general purpose of the Government is the preparation of Indian youth for assimilation into the national life by such a course in training as will prepare them for the duties and privileges of American citizenship."[a]
By 1928 assimilation through the boarding schools was no longer popular with the public, and the Meriam Report condemned the practice of forcibly removing Indian children from their families.[b] This type of removal ended during the 1930s.
After World War II, the intervention of social welfare workers into overseeing Indian families resulted in another type of removal, by which Indian children were removed from their families because of what were judged poor situations and placed in foster care or for adoption. In many cases, the dominant non-Indian culture justified the removal in order to protect or rescue the children from barbarism on the reservation. Indian children were placed outside the home at a rate five times greater than for non-Indian children.[c]
In 1978, Congress passed the Indian Child Welfare Act (ICWA). This law was enacted to protect tribes and their children; due to the high rate of Indian children who were being removed from their families and placed with non-Indian families, the children's Indian identities were lost and tribe survival was being threatened. In many cases, the children were removed from families who resided on Indian reservations, where the state government did not have legal jurisdiction. Many parents and children were denied due process, either by the state agency or the state court, leading to a finding by Congress that the states had failed to recognize tribal culture, relations, and standards. Congress set up both procedural and substantive provisions in the ICWA that are designed to 1) eliminate the need to remove Indian children due to cultural bias; 2) try to ensure that Indian children are placed in foster and adoptive homes that reflect Indian culture; and 3) to promote the use of tribal, rather than state, courts to adjudicate Indian child custody proceedings.
In 1985, a set of Indian twins were born in Harrison County, Mississippi, 200 miles from the Mississippi Band of Choctaw Indians. The mother had moved to Harrison County for the sole purpose of giving birth off the reservation and for placing the children with the Holyfields. The natural parents were not married, and both parents executed a consent for adoption in the Harrison County Chancery Court. The Holyfields, a non-Indian couple, adopted the twins. The state court signed a final decree of adoption in early 1986. Two months later, the tribe moved to vacate the adoption, stating that the tribal court had exclusive jurisdiction. The state trial court denied their motion, noting that the children had never lived on the reservation and were not born there. The tribe appealed to the Mississippi Supreme Court, which affirmed the trial court's decision. The tribe appealed. The Supreme Court granted certiorari.
Justice William J. Brennan delivered the opinion of the court. Brennan reviewed the intent of Congress and noted that one in eight Indian children were adopted out and that 90% of those children went to non-Indian homes. He noted that for children born or residing on a reservation, the tribal court has exclusive jurisdiction. In other cases, the tribal courts have concurrent jurisdiction. In those cases, on the motion of a parent or the tribe, the matter is to be transferred to the tribal court with three exceptions - for "good cause," objection to the transfer by either parent, or the declination of jurisdiction in the matter by the tribal court. He ruled that the emphasis the Mississippi Supreme Court placed on the non-reservation birth of the children and the fact that they never lived on the reservation, and the voluntary relinquishment by the natural parents was error.
Both of the natural parents resided on the reservation. A child's domicile follows that of the parent. The fact that the parents traveled 200 miles to avoid giving birth on the reservation does not serve to eliminate the tribal court's exclusive jurisdiction. Since the tribal court had such jurisdiction, the state court did not, and had no authority to enter an order of adoption. Reversed and remanded.
Justice John P. Stevens, joined by Chief Justice William Rehnquist and Justice Anthony Kennedy dissented from the majority opinion. Stevens felt that since the parents consented to the adoption and wanted to use the state court, they should be allowed to do so. Stevens believed that the ICWA was primarily intended to apply to the involuntary removal of Indian children from their families and the tribe, and a voluntary action by parents does not have the same characteristics. Stevens would have affirmed the decision of the state courts.
After the remand from the Supreme Court, the tribal court allowed the children to remain with their adoptive family, because “it would have been cruel to take them from the only mother they knew.” The court ordered that the children stay in contact with their natural extended family and tribe.
The case has had a large effect on family law involving Indian children, having been cited in more than 1,000 cases since the decision. It has also been extensively referenced in books and journals on Native American law.
Although the Supreme Court was clear that the ICWA was to be applied to adoption cases based on the statute and the accompanying House Report, "by making sure that Indian child welfare determinations are not based on "a white, middle-class standard..."", state courts created an "existing Indian family" it allows exceptions to the application of the ICWA. In those cases, courts had held that if the child was not part of an existing Indian family, a term that was not defined anywhere in the law, then the ICWA did not apply. At one point, nearly half of the states used the exception. As of 2010, only six states use the exception. The courts now appear to be viewing tribal interests as importantly as the child's interests in these cases, and also that they have begun to consider tribal cultures, in the sense of the extended family being integral to a child's support. 
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