Strong relationships with family and culture should be a priority for Native foster youth.

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No placement may be perfect when you are a foster youth. I can speak from personal experience.

I have been in and out of the foster system with my younger siblings since I was 9. Amid so many unknowns, one thing remains certain: I am grateful I was placed within my tribal community.

The Indian Child Welfare Act, or ICWA, ensures that American Indian and Alaska Native youth, such as me and my siblings, who are in state child welfare systems, remain connected to their families, cultures and communities.

ICWA is a long-standing federal law protecting the well-being of Native children by upholding family integrity and stability within their community. It was enacted in 1978 in response to a crisis affecting American Indian and Alaska Native children, families and tribes.

Studies came out that large numbers of Native children were being separated from their parents, extended families, and communities by state child welfare and private adoption agencies. Up to 35 percent of all Native children were being removed from their homes and communities.

Today, under ICWA, strong preference is given to “kinship” placement. This means relatives and extended families are sought to raise relative children. A case before the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit threatens ICWA’s ability to keep Native children with their families and communities whenever possible. It would make it easier for non-Natives to foster or adopt Native children away from their family, community and culture.

Being raised within my tribal community, I was able to learn our traditions, such as going to longhouse with my maternal grandma. Other family members would take me to the river to go salmon fishing.

I was never far from my culture. It is those cultural values that make me who I am. It’s the land that I grew up on and the land I am tied to. My home is something I take great pride in.

I am now raising my younger siblings, getting a degree in anthropology at Central Washington University and applying to law school. I wouldn’t be able to say that I’m graduating in June without the strength of my culture and the support from my family. In five years, I hope to be surviving law school while raising a teenage girl, my youngest sibling.

Losing our culture is not an option for us.

We go to longhouse when we can; we feast and perform traditional funerals for departed loved ones. My siblings know this history. They know these protocols and they know how to complete them in the traditional way. They know their identity. We are all stronger for this connection to our people.

It is imperative that the appeals court keeps ICWA intact, because it has allowed me to build the strong foundation to the person I am today.