American Indians in Illinois and ICWA; Changing the Course

Posted on: October 28th, 2019 by bflessner

Illinois has been home to native people for centuries. Yet, beginning with European settlement and continuing with modern day mistreatment these groups have been so thoroughly displaced and disregarded that reference to them in Illinois is generally limited to museums, historic sites, and college mascots.

            Illinois takes its name from the group of native people called the Illiniwek, who lived-in modern-day Illinois when French Jesuit priests first visited the area stretching from Lake Michigan across the Mississippi River Valley. This group was generally divided into six tribes that inhabited modern day Illinois, the Cahokia, Kaskaskia, Michigamea, Moingwena, Peoria, and Tamaroa tribes. These tribes represented a powerful confederation of native people in the early 1600s. Records kept by those first Jesuit Priests estimated the populations of individual Illiniwek villages in excess of 7,000 people. Over time these tribes were unwillingly assimilated with the settlers. By 1712, the total population of Illinois confederacy Indians had been reduced to less than 7,000, as French and British colonizers built forts in the area and took control of the territory. As Europeans moved in, native people began to move west of the Mississippi river to avoid European control. By 1783, what was once exclusively native territory was officially incorporated into the United States. Via the US Treaty of August 13, 1803, one of the last remaining tribes of the Illinois confederacy, the Kaskaskia, ceded all remaining territory east of the Mississippi. By the mid-1800s, all Illinois Indian tribes had been forced west to Missouri, then Kansas, and finally to Oklahoma. Today, surviving Illinois Indian tribes that were splintered by the troubles and pressures of the 1800s were reinstated as the Peoria Tribe of Oklahoma, a federally-recognized sovereign Indian tribe.

The product of this dark history is that no federally- or state-recognized tribes officially remain in Illinois. This does not mean that native people do not live in Illinois, and conversely, Chicago is home to over 140 tribal nations and has the 3rd largest urban native population. As a result of living in a state with no officially recognized tribes the urban population receives little to no public assistance or recognition. Native children in Illinois are removed from their family and placed in non-native homes at an astounding rate and native women and girls are especially exposed to sex and work trafficking in urban settings.

In response to these issues, Congress passed the Indian Child Welfare Act (“ICWA”).  ICWA attempts to ensure ensure due process for the parents, the tribes, and the children by emplacing procedures that must be followed by courts in proceedings involving native families or individuals. Those procedures include the testimony of a qualified expert witness prior to placement in foster care or termination of parental rights, required notification of a tribe when one of their children is the subject of a state proceeding, placement preferences for children in foster care and for adoptions, and active efforts to avoid the breakup of American Indian families. These guidelines are well intentioned but have found little success upon implementation. Courts have implicitly sped up removal and termination of parental rights proceedings involving native children. Courts are subject to timelines that do not provide time to implement to roadblocks setup by ICWA.

The Center for Human Rights for Children at Loyola University Chicago’s School of Law has partnered with the American Indian Center in Chicago to provide legal representation to native children and to assist with education and outreach about human trafficking. In addition, Loyola Law students will soon begin to conduct court observations to ensure Cook County courts follow the procedures set forth by ICWA. Helping native children remain with their parents not only protects them from further individual injustices but also protect native cultures of Illinois from being stretched even thinner by the court system. No single legislative change can return Illinois’s native people to prominence they once held, but Loyola is proud to be helping change the course of native people’s treatment in the state.

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