Reuben Ng, Senior Photographer

Content warning: This article contains references to abuse and sexual assault.

At the heart of Cherokee-American Rebecca Nagle’s fight to make the American judiciary accessible is a desire to reclaim Native truths and counter the erasure of Indigenous narratives.

In a Tuesday evening Pierson College Tea, the journalist, activist and creator of the podcast “This Land” spoke on her groundbreaking work in the recent Supreme Court case Haaland v. Brackeen, which regards the Indian Child Welfare Act — a 1978 law passed by Congress that allows tribal governments to regulate custody of Indigenous children.  She also discussed the importance of media representations of the case. 

“Until we have a public that understands what tribal sovereignty is and why it’s important, I think it’s very unlikely that we’re going to have federal judges and members of Congress [who will] also believe [in] that,” Nagle said. “The ignorance of the American Republic is shared.”

The talk was moderated by Rebecca Plumage, a research fellow at the NYU-Yale American Indian Sovereignty Project. At the start of the talk, Plumage introduced Nagle, remarking that she had completed a “tremendous amount of work” covering the ongoing Supreme Court case.

A white couple in Texas — Chad and Jennifer Brackeen — has ignited a national conversation on the adoption of Native American children. Looking to gain custody of the half-sister of their adopted Navajo and Cherokee son, despite resistance from tribal nations, they filed a lawsuit that could potentially overturn the ICWA.

Since then, Nagle explained that the media has constructed an “upside-down version of the truth” and a narrative in which the ICWA exclusively harms non-Native foster parents.

Nagle emphasized the importance of representing the feelings of foster parents within the proper context of foster care. Statements of love for a child or attachment to foster care do not override the fact that the “purpose of foster care is not to adopt,” she explained. She further noted that the foster parents were asked to sign a form reinstating that adoption is not guaranteed.

Nagle pointed out that dominant media narratives that sympathized with the Brackeens, including the New York Times, overlooked key details of the case, such as the fact that the Brackeens relinquished the placement of the first child that was placed with them.

“The story that’s told in the media is that this law [ICWA] rips the child away from their home,” Nagle said. “What’s actually happening is that there’s a deeply biased child welfare system that’s ripping Native families apart.”

Nagle hopes that the public will direct its attention to the greater systemic roadblocks and biases that hypercriminalize communities of color and prevent Native family members from trying to keep their children.

She added that a variety of interest groups have converged to diminish Indigenous sovereignty through seeking to overturn ICWA, including attorneys representing the private adoption industry and conservative organizations such as the Goldwater Institute, engaging in “strategic conservative litigation.” According to her, not only do these actors impinge on Indigenous sovereignty through legal means, they also introduce false narratives.

One of the largely dismissed components to the conversation that Nagle drew attention to was substance abuse stereotypes surrounding people of color, despite the statistic that Native folks have among the highest sobriety rates of any group in the nation. A big reason that these children entered foster care in the first place is that their parents were struggling with addiction, she explained, but the reality is that “almost none of these parents really get access to treatment.”

“Rebecca Nagle’s speech did the very important work of demystifying otherwise dense and convoluted Supreme Court cases regarding ICWA and Tribal sovereignty as a whole,” Avery Maples ’26, a member of the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians from Cherokee, North Carolina, wrote in an email to the News. “She increases the accessibility of some of the most important information in Indian Country today and imparts a necessary sense of urgency. ICWA underscores that relationship and America’s promise that Indian Nations can coexist within America and are entitled to their protection of Native resources, including one of the most precious of all, the children in their nations.”

According to Maples, seeking out information about issues such as ICWA from Native journalists and sources is key to counteracting misconceptions about Native people among the public.

In an email to the News, Leah Shrestinian, the program manager for the NYU-Yale American Indian Sovereignty Project, stated that in addition to the podcast, “reading through the Sovereignty Project’s brief is an excellent way to get informed.”

In addition to discussion of contemporary events, Nagle also spoke about her motivations for becoming a journalist, which was grounded in her early grassroots advocacy for sexual assault and domestic violence. She is a founding member of FORCE: Upsetting Rape Culture, which seeks to galvanize a public consciousness of consent and mutuality in social relationships.

Nagle also added that she is currently working on a book about key Supreme Court cases affecting Native communities, a theme explored within her podcast.

The “This Land” podcast’s first episode was released in 2019.

BRIAN ZHANG
Brian Zhang covers student life for the University desk, and previously housing and homelessness for the City desk. He is a sophomore in Davenport College.