BISMARCK, ND (KXNET) — The five federally recognized Indian Tribes of North Dakota are acting fast to ensure Native American children in foster care or adoptive homes, are placed with a temporary family in the same tribe or culture.

These practices are already being implemented in the state — but one bill would solidify, in state law, that Native American children are protected if any federal decisions overturn The Indian Child Welfare Act or ICWA.

House Bill 1536 was created as a response to state and federal agencies removing Native children from their homes and placing them with families outside of their culture. This bill would ultimately give tribal governments the final say over the state as to where a Native child will be placed.

“We just want to make sure first and foremost they go to family members, they go to extended family members, to their tribe,” said Representative Jayme Davis. “You know, that there’s that preference there, that cultural preference. And there’s a whole history of why that is in place.”

The U.S. Congress passed ICWA in 1978 — when one-third of Native children were separated from their families and cultural roots. But North Dakota already has a shortage of foster families, with more than 1,500 kids in the system in 2022. Roughly 40% of caregivers to children in North Dakota foster care are relatives, and tribes want their children to have that same opportunity. Tribal members say it is imperative for the sustainability of their culture.

“We had generations of Native Americans that were lost,” explained ND Indian Affairs Commission Executive Director, Nathan Davis. “They didn’t understand who they were and where they came from. And now there’s been a really strong movement amongst native communities to really get back to their roots, get back to their culture, to really find out who they are. And so, the language in this bill, it’s to protect those children from becoming lost, and not forgetting their culture, and where they come from, and why should be proud of that.”

The bill will be on the Senate floor this week.