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Jurisdiction Over American Indian Child Custody Cases

By Barbara Ryan

The United States Supreme Court will hear arguments about whether the Indian Child Welfare Act (ICWA) is constitutional later this year.[1] The Court may decide to keep the law, modify it or strike it altogether.  Before ICWA, child welfare agencies were ignorant or insensitive to cultural differences in child-rearing.[2] Over 75 percent of Indian families living on reservations lost at least one child to either private or public agencies.[3] In 1978, Congress enacted ICWA in recognition that children were vital to the continued existence of Indian tribes.[4] The purpose of ICWA was to  

“…protect the best interests of Indian children and to promote the stability and security of Indian tribes and families by the establishment of minimum Federal standards for the removal of Indian children from their families and the placement of such children in foster or adoptive homes which will reflect the unique values of Indian culture…”[5]

ICWA established minimal standards for the removal of American Indian children and provided guidelines for the placement of those children in either foster or adoptive homes that reflected their values and culture.[6] Later this year, the Supreme Court will decide if those protections are still needed. 

Before decisions about placement or permanency are made, there must be a determination about which court has jurisdiction over child custody proceedings. A “child custody proceeding” is an adjudicatory hearing where the court determines the necessity and placement of children, including foster placement, termination of parental rights, and adoptive placements.[7] The Uniform Child Custody Jurisdiction and Enforcement Act (UCCJEA) uses four factors to determine jurisdiction.[8] The factors are based on the child’s affiliation to the State.[9] First, a home state is where the child has lived for at least the last six months before any custody action.[10] The second is a significant connection with substantial evidence of a connection to that state.[11] Third, an emergency resulting from an urgent circumstance such as abandonment or abuse that requires an immediate protective response.[12] Fourth is via vacuum when no other jurisdiction basis exists.[13]  These factors are used for children across the country but do not apply to American Indian children.

UCCJEA does not apply to custody cases involving American Indian children; instead, they are governed by ICWA.[14]  Tribal-State jurisdictional disputes may occur only when States have enacted the optional Section 104 of the UCCJEA.[15]  In such cases, States must treat tribes, Tribal courts, and Tribal court custody orders with full faith and credit as they would with other states.[16]  Tribes have exclusive jurisdiction over an Indian child who lives on the reservation and is enrolled or is eligible for enrollment, except where such jurisdiction is vested in State or Federal law.[17]

Many years of advocacy and litigation have shaped Tribal jurisdiction.  In United States v. Mazurie, the  Supreme Court held that state jurisdiction is based on where the parties live, but tribal jurisdiction is determined by the relationship the member has with the tribe irrespective of where any of the parties live.[18]   In Miles v. Chinle Fam. Ct., the State Court held the Navajo Nation had jurisdiction over their enrolled members regardless of where either the parent or child lives.[19]  The determining factor in jurisdiction is the enrollment status.[20] In Father J v. Mother A, the Court concluded that children have “rights and privileges” as enrolled members including to access the tribal courts. [21] Additionally, the Court concluded that UCCJEA did not effect in any way the Indian Child Welfare Act, thus did not apply. [22]  Further, the Court stated that in “child custody proceeding involving an Indian child is not subject to the UCCJEA.”[23]Lastly, the Court emphasized that the Uniform Child Custody Jurisdiction and Enforcement Act (UCCJEA) did not apply to a Nation unless the Tribe had adopted it.[24]

The Miles Court also addressed two critical aspects as delineated in UCCJEA. First, the Court emphasized that Tribal Nations are entitled to comity and should also be afforded res judicata like other states.[25]  Second, the State Court stayed action until tribal remedies had been exhausted.[26] Tribal exhaustion means that the Tribe must be given a chance to resolve the issues.[27]  The exhaustion requirement also provides the Tribe an opportunity to determine the scope of the issues, develop a complete record, and explain tribal jurisdiction.[28]   The United States Supreme Court concluded in National Farmers Union Insurance Cos. v. Crow Tribe that defendants with cases pending in Tribal Court must exhaust all available remedies at the tribal level before proceeding with an action in federal court. [29] Exhaustion could include challenges to jurisdiction or of the action in Tribal court.[30]

Along with exhaustion, many courts have considered and attempted to preempt conflicting judgements. The Father J v. Mother A Court emphasized the importance of avoiding conflicting judgments in cases with similar substance and procedure.[31] In Garcia v. Gutierrez, the Court wrestled over the concern of concurrent jurisdiction resulting in contradictory decisions.[32]  After considering the Infringement Test, the Court relied on the principle that Indian Nations are a “separate people” possessing “the power of regulating their internal and social relations…”[33] Only the federal government, not the states, can make such determinations because Congress has plenary power over Tribal Nations.[34]  For example, in Halwood v. Cowboy Auto Sales, Inc., the State Court acknowledged the Navajo Nation’s tribal sovereignty and “full faith and credit” of the Nation.[35]  Further, in Jim v. CIT Fin. Servs. Corp., the State was forced to use tribal law due to the full faith and credit of the Navajo Nation.[36] Many courts now recognize the power of Tribes over their own members and thus, give Tribal courts an opportunity to resolve custodial cases before they consider or accept jurisdiction.

Tribal Nations have jurisdiction above other courts over enrolled tribal members and children either enrolled or eligible for enrollment regardless of where they live.  A child custody case may be filed in federal court due to diversity jurisdiction; however, federal courts have historically either stayed or declined to adjudicate such claims in order to afford Tribal courts the first opportunity to determine their jurisdiction.[37]  The federal government has recognized that American Indian children are critical to the existence and integrity of their Nations and thus, enacted ICWA.  Although all states must comply with ICWA now, that may change with a decision on Brackeen.[38]  Although the federal government has recognized that Tribal Nations have the right “to make their own laws and be ruled by them,”[39] changes to ICWA causing erosion to tribal sovereignty could have a devastating effect on the survival of Tribal Nations.


[1] See Generally, Brackeen v. Haaland, 994 F.3d 249 (5th Cir. 2021).

[2] State of Montana, ICWA History and Purpose, https://dphhs.mt.gov/cfsd/icwa/icwahistory (last visited Mar. 6, 2022).

[3] Id.

[4] Indian Child Welfare Act, 25 U.S.C. § 1902 (1978).

[5] Id.

[6] Id.

[7]  25 U.S.C. §1903(1) (1978).

[8] U.S. Dep’t of Justice, The Uniform Child Custody Jurisdiction and Enforcement Act, Juvenile Justice Bulletin, 5 (Dec. 2001), https://www.ojp.gov/pdffiles1/ojjdp/189181.pdf.

[9] Id. at 2.

[10] Id.

[11] Id.

[12] Id. 

[13] Id. 

[14] Id. at 5.

[15] Id. (Native nations are sovereign and each tribe has its own child custody jurisdiction law.)

[16] U.S. CONST. art. IV, § 1 (full faith and credit requirement is derived from Article IV, Section I of the Constitution, that state courts respect the judgments of courts from other states.)

[17] 25 U.S.C. § 1911 (1978).

[18] United States v. Mazurie, 419 U.S. 544, 557 (1975).

[19] See generally Miles v. Chinle Family Court, No. SC-CV-04-08, 2008 WL 5437146.

[20] Id. at 613.

[21] Father J v. Mother A, No. MPTC-CV-FR-2014-207, 2015 WL 5936866, *2 (Mash. Pequot Tribal Ct. Aug. 21, 2015).   

[22] Id. at *5.

[23] Id.

[24] Id.; See also, 28 U.S.C. § 1738A (2000), (This law was enacted in 1980 to resolve jurisdictional conflicts, promote cooperation between states and abductions during interstate child custody disputes.) 

[25] Miles, SC-CV-04-08 at 7.

[26] Id. at 6.

[27] National Farmers Union Insurance Cos. v. Crow Tribe, 471 U.S. 857, 857 (1985).

[28] Id.

[29] Id. at 856.

[30] Id. at 857.

[31] Father J, 2015 WL 5936866 at *304.

[32] See generally Garcia v. Gutierrez, 147 N.M. 105, 217 P.3d 591 (2009).

[33] United States v. Kagama, 118 U.S. 375, 381–382 (1886). 

[34] Garcia, 147 N.M. at 107.

[35] Halwood v. Cowboy Auto Sales, Inc., 124 N.M. 77, 78, 946 P.2d 1088 (1997).

[36] See Generally Jim v. CIT Fin. Servs. Corp., 87 N.M. 362, 533 P.2d 751 (1975).

[37] National Farmers Union Insurance Cos., 471 U.S. at 857.

[38] See Generally Brackeen, 994 F.3d 249.

[39] Williams v. Lee, 358 U.S. 217, 219–220 (1959).

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