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White Mobilization
of Indigenous DNA



The Mobilization of Indigenous Ideology Against Indigenous Interests


     Native American child adoption by non-indigenous peoples has burgeoned recently due to the subversion of the ICWA regulation that intended to place native children with native families. This action has been funded and attempted by the Goldwater Institute, a conservative thinktank that has no ties to Native American issues or culture. This action is informed by centuries of prejudice and white supremacy that is ultimately undeniable.


     In order to understand the problem at hand, we must deconstruct the initial argument of the Brackeen family: who decided that they could not return their newly adopted child, Zachary, to a native family. The patriarch of the Brackeen family used the following statement as the rationale for why the adoption should have gone through, “…if you’ve [ever] had a charming little baby living with you for more than a year,…[adoption is] hard not to do.” (Hoffman, 2019). He also cited that the ICWA law is formed by a racial basis and believed that the only reason Zachary (the Navajo child in question) was being taken from the Brackeen family was due to a difference in skin color.


     In Kim Tallbear’s analysis of Genomics and Indigeneity, the following statement elucidates the ignorance of the Brackeen’s argument. “…indigenous peoples’ ‘ancestry’ is not simply genetic ancestry evidenced in ‘populations’ but biological, cultural, and political groupings constituted in dynamic, long-standing relationships with each other and with living landscapes that define their people-specific identities and, more broadly, their indigeneity” (Tallbear, 2013).

      So, we know that race and genetics is only a very small part of the overall conceptualization of, for example, the Navajo Nation. ICWA is not just based on race, but rather a multiplicity of cultural indicators that cannot be replicated by a European-descended family, no matter how much money or moral certainty they have.


     Brackeen doesn’t seem concerned with these issues, though mobilized them explicitly when petitioning to adopt Zachary’s sister. He says, “How can it not be in his best interest, to grow up with a sibling who looks more like him than we do, who knows what he’s gone through and who shares his story more than anyone else?” (Hoffman, 2019). This kind of mobilization is similarly seen in the Metis people’s use of their Indigenous DNA. The Metis claims to be the only Indigenous group that still exists in Quebec, ignoring the Mi’kmaq Tribe that is still there. The Metis have a predominantly European ancestry but use their Native American DNA as a resource that allows them to enhance legal battles against the Mi’kmaq and the Canadian government (Leroux, 2018). This disregards the actual reality of Indigenous culture and lifestyle for a purely genetic/racial conceptualization of indigeneity.


     Zachary’s story is one that is felt strongly by whole communities of Navajo people. It is a narrative of forced assimilation and white people pretending to know “what’s best” for the Navajo. Furthermore, these children may find that their story is strikingly similar to their ancestors’ experiences. It is a narrative of being taken from their homeland and placed in a culture that is not their own, forced to conform to Christianity, capitalism, and performative whiteness.


     The Carlisle School was one example of an assimilationist school that sought to eradicate the native-ness of a multitude of Native American Tribes. This event is mythologized in many Tribal cultures and represents the peak of attempted assimilation. The reason for its creation shows the genetic basis that lies at the heart of many of these attempts to bring Native Americans into mainstream America. According to the Carlisle Indian School Project, “Amid dire predictions of the ‘extinction’ of Native Americans without complete and rapid integration, Civil War veteran Lt. Col. Richard Henry Pratt spearheaded the effort to create an off-reservation boarding school” (Accessed on 4/24/2020). Here we can see the white savior mentality at its extreme, as indigenous populations were not declining at this point, but increasing due to hyperdescent and normal population growth. In an attempt to save “pure” native populations via assimilation, culture was irrevocably lost to forced Christianization and Americanization.


     This argument that Indigenes must be saved from their own kind is implicitly present in the Brackeen family’s legal debate, demonstrating its ties with the genetic basis of past arguments that work against Indigenes. The family stated that the Navajo family may not have the finances to properly care for the child, which is unfounded and steeped in a belief that people of color are less successful than those of European descent. Furthermore, their tie to Christianity is not a coincidence. Evangelical pastors push families to adopt in order to grow the population of Christians with extreme beliefs. The rhetoric of pastors describes adoption as a moral imperative (Asgarian, 2020). The Brackeens demonstrate this in their want to “rectify their blessing” (monetary wealth) by adoption.


     Ultimately, this case continues the trajectory of white use of Indigenous concepts against the interests of Indigenes. Christianization especially continues to be a concerning problem that may increase due to the overturning of some parts of the ICWA regulation. Those with money (and thus power) have the resources to continue to waste the court’s time with similar cases in different states. This tactic is used explicitly by the Goldwater Institute and other conservative thinktanks in order to reclaim states’ rights, property rights, and “equal protection of native children”. They enhance their arguments not via quality or evolving rhetoric/debate, but rather quantity. The tactic itself is not inherently problematic (Brown v. Board of Education only got in front of the supreme court because of this tactic after all), but it does tend to benefit those with money and influence over, for example, Native Americans.


     I doubt that we will ever be without white attempts to deride and undermine native culture and heritage via adoption. We can, however, elucidate the methods by which these injustices occur and are legalized. Culture is about more than just skin or DNA. A family is about more than just a house and people to exist around. A family is a unit that shares your narrative, that can teach you about the specific struggles and benefits of being YOU in the current world. I personally believe that the Brackeen family does not meet this necessity. They do not know the myths and legends of the Navajo. They will not cook the food, dance the dances, or sing the songs. They will do what the Carlisle School did; destroy the boy’s connection to his culture and likely prevent him from being self-actualized as a human being until much later in life.    


Works Cited


Asgarian, R. (2020). “How a white evangelical family could

     dismantle adoption protections for Native children”. Vox.     child-welfare-act-court-case- foster-care Accessed on   4/24/2020.


Carlisle Indian School Project. (2020). “Institutional History”.

     Carlisle Indian School Project.

     Accessed on 4/24/2020.


Hoffman, J. (2019). “Who Can Adopt a Native American Child? A

     Texas Couple vs. 573 Tribes”. The New York Times. custody-fight.html

     Accessed on 4/24/2020.


Leroux, D. (2018). ‘We’ve been here for 2,000 years’: White

     settlers, Native American DNA and the phenomenon of

     indigenization. Social Studies of Science 48(1): 80-100.


Tallbear, K. (2013). Genomic articulations of indigeneity.

     Social Studies of Science 43(4): 509-533. 

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