Using Peacemaking Circles to Indigenize Tribal Child Welfare

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Lauren van Schilfgaarde
Brett Lee Shelton


Historical child welfare policies explicitly aimed to exterminate Indigenous culture and disrupt tribal cohesion. The remnants of these policies form the foundation for the contemporary child welfare system. These policies view the child as an isolated and interchangeable asset, over which parents enjoy property-like rights, and in which the child welfare system is incentivized to “save” children from perceived economic, cultural, and geographic ills through an adversarial process. Extended family, community members, and cultural connections have minimal voice or value. These underpinnings inform federal policies that influence all child welfare systems, including tribal child welfare systems. The result is that tribal child welfare systems perpetuate the individual, rights-centric, adversarial child welfare system that harms Indigenous families.

Indigenous children have the right to maintain connections to their Indigenous family, tribal nation, culture, and cultural education. These rights translate into obligations the community owes to the child to ensure that these connections are robust. Tradition-based systems of dispute resolution—frequently called “peacemaking,” among other names, but which we will call “circle processes”—offer a hopeful alternative.

Circle processes are rooted in an Indigenous worldview that perceives an issue, particularly a child welfare issue, as evidence of community imbalance that directly impacts the community, and conversely, imparts an obligation on the community to respond. Through the circle, family and community can complete their natural reciprocal relationship.

Tribal child welfare has the potential to be a transformative system that promotes community, family, and children’s health and the self-determination and sovereignty of tribes. This Article outlines the ways in which the modern tribal child welfare system has been structured to compartmentalize families and perpetuate historical federal policies of Indian family separation. This Article then suggests that circle processes are a framework for re-Indigenizing the tribal child welfare system to not just improve outcomes (for which it has the potential to do), but to also honor the interconnected, responsibility oriented worldview of Indigenous communities. Ultimately, however, tribes should lead that re-Indigenization process, whether through a circle process framework or otherwise.

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How to Cite
van Schilfgaarde, L., & Shelton, B. L. (2021). Using Peacemaking Circles to Indigenize Tribal Child Welfare. Columbia Journal of Race and Law, 11(3), 681–710.