Patrice Kunesh on ICWA: “Borders Beyond Borders”

Patrice Kunesh (South Dakota Law) has posted “Borders Beyond Borders: Protecting Essential Tribal Relations Off Reservation Under the Indian Child Welfare Act” on her BEPRESS Selected Works site.

Patrice presented her paper at the 3rd Annual Indigenous Law Conference, “Facing the Future: The Indian Child Welfare Act at 30.”


2008 is the thirty year anniversary of the enactment of the Indian Child Welfare Act (ICWA), one of the most dynamic pieces of legislation in federal Indian affairs that irrevocably changed the jurisdictional prerogatives of states and tribes. ICWA’s tribal wardship provision is remarkably constructive because it vests tribes with exclusive jurisdiction over Indian children who are wards of the tribal court–irrespective of the child’s domicile. This jurisdictional scheme, a rough mixture of territorial and personal criteria, defies the normative notions of state court jurisdiction over family relations. And the cross-hatching of state and tribal interests in off-reservation child welfare matters has engendered serious tension and questions about the precise contours of tribal sovereignty and the boundary line between state and tribal power.

This article investigates the transformation point between tribal and state jurisdiction over Indian child welfare matters. From an examination of the historical development of tribal wardship decisions and ICWA’s legislative history, material unexamined in this context in other scholarship, I posit that tribes, as unique political entities in our federal system of government, possess inherent attributes of sovereignty to regulate their internal social relations. ICWA is premised on the dual nature of tribal sovereignty, and allows, if not encourages, tribes to redefine their relationship to state governments by recognizing that the power to adjudicate internal matters, including child custody matters, derives from a source independent of the land. Thus, there are no real boundaries to protecting these essential tribal relations where the exercise of tribal authority is vital to the maintenance of tribal integrity and self-determination.