Senator Mary Kunesh, Tribal Leaders and Citizens Testify in Support of Bill to Protect Tribal Sovereignty, Native Families in Minnesota

ST. PAUL, Minn. — On Tuesday, a bill that would strengthen the Minnesota Indian Family Preservation Act (MIFPA) and protect Native families and tribal sovereignty in Minnesota (SF 667) had its first hearing in the Health and Human Services Committee. Chief author Senator Mary Kunesh (DFL-New Brighton) testified in support of the bill alongside many tribal leaders and citizens.

“Throughout the history of the United States and Minnesota, governments and private practices have implemented intentional horrific methods of removal and disconnection of Indian children from their families from their culture and from their tribes,” said Senator Kunesh. “There’s not a family not affected by this.”

“This proposal is the minimum necessary to ensure protection for our tribal children, families and tribes,” Senator Kunesh continued. “Passage of this bill will continue to effectively work to protect Indian families, reduce litigation where possible, and provide more clarity so that tribes, counties, (and) government agencies work under the same expectations and understandings of the rights and responsibility of our tribes our families and our communities.”

“In addition to the emotional devastation of losing family and community members, tribal sovereignty was weakened by the loss of children who are a valuable resource and vital to the continued existence and welfare of the tribe,” said Faron Jackson Sr., Leech Lake Band of Ojibwe chairman. “I was born in 1955, and I come from a family of eight children, and we were living in our tribal homeland. And my two younger brothers were removed at the age of 4 and 5 from our home in the ‘60s, before the ICWA (Indian Child Welfare Act) or MIFPA laws were established. It caused a lot of trauma in our family, and we can still feel it today… Even though they’re my biological brothers, they feel like strangers in a way when we’re together… These are things that families experienced, this trauma. And you try to heal and move forward, but it’s like a post-traumatic stress syndrome, the horrors of war: You never forget them and they never go away. You try to move on as best you can. Tribal leaders and elders, we don’t want to see this happening anymore in our communities.”

“Our children are vital to our customs, traditions, values and sovereignty,” said Robert Larsen, Lower Sioux Community president. “The wakaƞheja (children) are our future, next in line to continue passing down the knowledge and wisdom of our teachings, our wicohaƞ—the way of life—to the next generation and for generations to come… As a foster parent, my family has helped 15 children, with two resulting in adoption. It’s important that tribes have a say in placement preferences so that children do not lose ties to their culture and community.”

“The United States Supreme Court challenge (to ICWA) is really an attack on our tribal sovereignty,” said Laurie York, executive director of White Earth Nation, ICWA Advisory Council co-chair. “It will impact many, many services provided to our children and families, for all of our tribal nations. It’s really important, and I cannot stress enough, that it really is at the root an attack on our sovereignty… Minnesota is in a better place than most, but we have to do everything possible to ensure that our children are protected.”

“In today’s age, we use terms such as sovereignty with the understanding that sovereignty… pretty much basically (means) the right to govern yourself,” said Kevin Dupuis, chairman of Fond du Lac Band of Lake Superior Chippewa. “But as an Anishinaabe man, we are tied to the earth in different ways, and it’s hard for people to understand that principle. But (sovereignty) is a right not just to govern yourself; it’s a right to live. It’s a right to have a spiritual language. It’s a right to be tied to everything that exists out there… No one man or group of people has the right to deny us the right to exist as who we are as a people. Our children are our future, and that goes for any society: Their children are their future… When our children have a future, that means we still exist as Anishinaabe.”

“In 1946, my mother had an accident and passed to the spirit world,” said Gertrude Buckanaga, executive director of Upper Midwest American Indian Center, White Earth Nation. “(My siblings and I) were sent to boarding schools… We were kept from our parents, our grandparents, our relatives and our friends. We did not go home that year, so we never saw our family members. In 1947 we did go home; I don’t know how we got to go home that year, but we went home to spend time with my baby sister and baby brother who were raised by my uncle… In August of 1947, we went back to boarding school, and we never went home after that. We were kept from our dad, our grandparents, our aunts and uncles, cousins, family members that we grew up with when we were young.” 

“When I first came into this work… I could tell that (ICWA and MIFPA) weren’t valued,” said Bobbi Jo Potter, manager of the Ramsey County Indian Child Welfare program, citizen of Bois Forte Band of Chippewa, descendent of the St. Croix Band of Chippewa. “I could tell by the way people rolled their eyes; I could tell when people talked about ‘Oh gosh, we’ve got to involve the tribe’… MIFPA is talked about as the gold standard because we as Indigenous people believe in relationships, and that’s something that’s important to all people. We have a right, when we come here, to know who we are, where we come from, who our family is, and why we’re here. And if we continue and you support MIFPA, other children that I won’t ever meet, I’ll never know, will have the same opportunities that my daughter has today.”

SF 677 is a result of recommendations from the Tribal MIFPA working group with input from Minnesota Department of Human Services, the Minnesota Association of County Social Services Administrators, and more. The bill would incorporate all federal ICWA provisions into Minnesota law to avoid an overwhelming amount of litigation in Child Welfare and Family law if ICWA is overturned by the U.S. Supreme Court, as it may be by the case Haaland v. Brackeen. 

From 1958 to 1967, the federal government enacted a program called the Indian Adoption Project with the explicit goal of placing Native children with white families for adoption. Before ICWA went into place in 1978, approximately one in four Indian children were placed in out-of-home foster care nationally, with Minnesota’s rate as high as 35 percent. These placements were typically done without agreement or consultation with the child’s family or tribe.

The committee moved to pass SF 667 to the Judiciary and Public Safety Committee, where it will appear on Friday, Feb. 10.

View or download photos of testifiers from Dropbox. Credit photos to Senate DFL Media.


Mary K. Kunesh represents Senate District 39, which covers the communities of St. Anthony Village, New Brighton, Hilltop, Columbia Heights, Fridley, and a portion of Spring Lake Park.

Learn more about Sen. Kunesh.

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