A Fight, A Fight, an Indian and a White! Of Childhood Chants and Indian Child Welfare

Gyasi Ross

On the rez, the kids at my school got into fights quite a bit. We had this saying, when one of the few white kids (or one of the Indian kids that “looked white”) who went to our school was involved: “A fight! A fight! An Indian and a white! If the Indian don’t win, we all jump in!”

I’m sure every racial group has some variation of that saying. For some reason, ignorance is multi-lingual.

Usually we were true to our word: if the Blackfeet kid didn’t somehow prevail in the fight, we were ready to get down James Brown. I suspect that sometimes the white kid would just give up because, heck, getting beating up by one person is better than getting beat up by 15.

I read a story yesterday that made me reconsider this saying. The story is about a custody dispute involving a Native dad and a non-Native couple. From what I read, it seems a perfectly sane, adult Indian dad voluntarily signed away his rights as a parent, with, according to all evidence, no gun to his head, no duress, of his own free will. But then, evidently, the child’s dad got seller’s remorse—and decided that he really didn’t mean to sign all of that required paperwork and give his child up. Even the author of the Indian Child Welfare Act—Senator Abourezk, the man who took the initiative to create proactive legislation to keep Indian families together—said that this case was "something totally different than what we intended at the time…a tragedy.”

It made me reconsider our childhood chant: “A fight! A fight! An Indian and a white! If the Indian don’t win, we all jump in!”

But this time, when I reconsidered, I thought, “What if the Indian was wrong?”

It wasn’t even a consideration when we were kids. Of course the Indian kid was right, and we should all jump in on his behalf if he happened to catch the wrong end of a DDT, Shake Rattle and Roll and/or People’s Elbow. Now…I’m not so sure. I’m not so sure that we should defend Indian people just to defend Indian people and become apologists when Indians are wrong. I understand the tendency, just like those little kids in elementary: we all want the Indian to win.

But what about when the Indian is wrong?

Then I started to think about how many times, in fancy Skin meetings, when Natives make silly/harmful decisions and then defend it under the auspices of “sovereignty.” And we don’t question it publicly, and Indian people look at us shocked if we do question it (just like we never questioned the little Indian kid fighting at my elementary school) simply because it’s an Indian or an Indian Tribe making the decision. That, evidently, is enough to make it “right” in our eyes. Sovereignty trumps all.

Still, sometimes it’s fair to question whether “Respect our sovereignty” is really code for “Don’t question my stupidity and whether “Respect our sovereignty” means “I really don’t have a good explanation for this decision, so simply don’t question me because I’m Indian.”

What if the Indian is wrong?

Personally, I think we owe Indian people more than that; I think Indians should be treated like everybody else—like adults. Why shouldn’t we be held to the same standards as everybody else? I mean, I’ve been around Natives my whole life, and the ones that I’m around don’t need any special treatment—they’re incredibly capable all by themselves. They don’t want special treatment. Likewise, it’s insulting to the dad’s intelligence to say that he was so oblivious that he didn’t understand the consequences of his signing literally dozens of pieces of paper to give his child away. I think we owe it to Indian people to hold us to the same standards as everybody else and say, “Yes, Indian dad, you are just as competent as anyone else in this country and therefore you must live with your decisions. Like a big boy.” I hope there’s more to the story than what I’ve read—I pray that there’s a principled reason to get behind and support the Native dad and say “he was right” in this unfortunate controversy, and not that he’s simply doing this because he can. Sovereignty is good for Indians. ICWA is good for Indians. But sometimes we have to think critically about the consequences of even good things.

But that’s just me. But, I’ve admittedly changed since my elementary school days.

Gyasi Ross comes from the Blackfeet Nation and also the Suquamish Nation. He recently wrote a book called Don’t Know Much About Indians (but i wrote a book about us anyways). He also writes for the blog “The Thing About Skins” in Indian Country Today Media Network’s website.

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duwaynesmith's picture
Gyasi, Great, thought-provoking article. The question of whether or not "sovereignty trumps all" is an important one, in my opinion. This question will become even more important in the future.
eddye's picture
my wife and i are american indians who have adopted three indian girls and we had to use the ICWA to get one of our girls in florida when she was six months old. the family who had her were great and we thanked them for helping this baby get a good start to her life. ICWA is very, very important to our indian communities and we have to ensure it remains viable. stories like this, if true, make me worry about backlash and the potential weakening of the law. if the father knowingly signed away his rights and the law has no grace period for reconsideration, then the father should accept the situation, know the baby is loved and if it is open, he should make sure his daughter knows him, his relatives and his culture. more love is better.
gpc74's picture
People seem to missing the fact that this case is plagued with procedural errors. Furthermore, people are missing the fact that ICWA works to preserve families with enhanced services and additional protections for parents, Indian and non-Indian alike. However, ICWA strengthens and protects the rights of tribes and their future. I am not an attorney but I am an ICWA expert and a former state Native American Affairs Director I find myself asking several questions that no one else is asking. Was the adoption agency a for profit adoption agency? It sound like it was. Why did the biological mother not disclose to the biological father that she planned to terminate her own rights allowing the child to be adopted when she sought the father’s voluntary release? Why did the mother provide the wrong information regarding the father’s name when the adoption agency was looking into the child’s Indian ancestry for potential application of ICWA’s standards? The bottom line here is that the tribe was deprived of their right to intervene in the case. The tribe was deprived of their rights to transfer the case into their court system to maintain the case under its jurisdiction. The child was deprived of being placed first with an extended family member from either the father or mother’s side of the family or with an Indian family prior to the selection of a non-Indian family. I agree that this case is tragic but the adoptive family should be pursuing the issue in tribal court rather than South Carolina’s state court system. Furthermore, it kills me that people are so outspoken yet are ignorant about tribes, tribal rights, and the ICWA. Who cares what the child’s blood quantum may or may not be. ICWA clearly states that it applies if an Indian child is the subject of an involuntary or voluntary court proceeding and an Indian child does not have to be living the Indian culture in order to be subject to the application of the ICWA. Approximately 75% of all Indian live off of reservations and there are large, if not the largest, Indian populations in urban areas. So does that mean that the ICWA will not apply to them because they have no culture? The tribe's rights were violated and an incredible dis-service was done to this child. I think there is plenty of blame to go around for all involed.