February 07, 2009

Lessons from Baby Talon

Galanda:  Indian law on the bar exam benefits everyoneAn Associated Press story ran the day after Christmas about Heather and Clint Larson, non-Indian Utah citizens, and Talon, the 6-month-old boy they adopted. “After a months-long court battle,” the story went, “the couple had to hand him over to representatives of the birth mother’s American Indian tribe, Minnesota’s Leech Lake Band of Ojibwe, and watch him being driven away.

“It was horrific. We lost our child,” said Heather Larson.
But:In Talon’s instance, the ICWA required the Utah state court to recognize the Leech Lake tribal court’s jurisdiction over the termination of parental rights, or at least pay full faith and credit to the tribal court’s prior custody order. It appears the Utah court ultimately followed federal law, but not before upending at least three lives.

But one must ask: What were the lawyers thinking before Talon was initially placed with the Larsons? What about the adoption agency’s counsel? The state court judge? More to the point: Did all of those jurists fail to consider whether or to what extent the ICWA affected Talon’s adoption? Did they fail to fully consider Talon’s tribal cultural identity when determining what was in his best interests? Did they fail to acknowledge that the Leech Lake tribal court had concurrent jurisdiction and that tribal adjudication of the matter was preferred? Did they simply fail to spot the breadth of ICWA issues before Talon was initially placed with the Larsons-–before they developed a sacred parent-child bond?
Comment:  Good list of questions.

What I find interesting here is the interaction between 1) Campbell Brown's tirade, 2) the lack of Indian law on bar exams, and 3) the mainstream's continued ignorance of tribal sovereignty, tribal culture, and tribal interests.

So lawyers who should know Indian law instead know nothing. Government officials who should apply the law correctly instead let an Indian baby get adopted. Campbell Brown vents her spleen and Indians come across as cruel baby-snatchers--yet another modern version of the classic uncivilized savage.

This is why I keep saying ignorance is the problem and education is the solution. If the lawyers were more aware of Indians, they might've done the right thing before baby Talon's adoption became a problem. But they're not aware because Indian law isn't on the bar exam.

In a broader sense, why does this ignorance keep happening? Because people see only Indians in historical dramas, Indian mascots, and white people dressing up as Indians. All of which convey the notion that most Indians are gone and the few remaining ones exist to provide ethnic "color."

There you have it: a link between Native stereotyping and a real-world legal issue. If the lawyers and judges had read a Sherman Alexie book rather than watched an old John Wayne movie, the outcome might've been different. They might've realized that Indians have ongoing legal concerns and rights in baby adoption cases.

Below:  An Indian who has no legal concerns or rights...because he's dead.

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