Adoptee from Alaska explains why ICWA matters



Jennifer Quinto with her family in the 1980s. (Photo courtesy of Jennifer Quinto)

On November 9, the United States Supreme Court is scheduled to hear Haaland v. Brackeen – a case that has been recognized as the biggest challenge to the Indian Child Welfare Act since its inception in 1978.

ICWA was created to grant tribal authority over adoptions of Native children in order to preserve Native families and culture. In August, a bipartisan group of 87 members of Congress — led by four senators, including Alaska Senator Lisa Murkowsi — filed a brief to the Supreme Court in support of ICWA.

In the case before the Supreme Court, several state and individual plaintiffs, including the Brackeen family, alleged that the ICWA was unconstitutional and racially discriminatory.

In 1978, just when the ICWA was passed but before it was enacted, Jennifer Quinto was adopted from an Athabaskan family to a multicultural Lingít home in Juneau.

“For my adoption, it was a big gamble,” she said. “And I could very easily have been placed with another [non-Native] family. And how many children are there who have not had this protection? »

Her mother worked for the Alaska Legislature for 30 years, so she was close to many politicians and legislators. Some of them worked on the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act, and some were strong advocates for Native women and children.

Jennifer Quinto with her mother and brother on a road trip in the Yukon. Photo courtesy of Quinto.

“I know myself and my brother both enjoyed certain layers of privilege that probably didn’t exist for a lot of other people at the time,” Quinto said.

A sense of survivor’s guilt – of being an adoptee who had the chance to explore her Indigenous roots – stayed with her.

“There were so many adoptees I met that I could feel the intensity of the pain and the anger,” Quinto said. “And it all comes from the fact that they were brought up with [non-Native] families who simply did not understand the complexities [of their identities].”

When she met her adopted childhood friends, Quinto discovered that many of them struggled with drug addiction and homelessness.

“Physically they may have lived, but spiritually and emotionally, absolutely not,” she said.

Love and family no matter the distance

From ginger beef and adobo to Jell-O and coleslaw to smoked fish and herring roe, childhood dinners in Quinto’s family were always a battle over what kind of food would be prepared.

His father was part of a first-generation Lingít-Filipino in Juneau and was raised in a large family.

In his generation, the state of Alaska would deem some Native parents unfit and send their children to boarding schools.

Only immediate family members could intervene, so his mother – Quinto’s grandmother – claimed all of her nieces, nephews and distant relatives as her biological children so that they would not be sent away.

Quinto felt that when his parents were looking to adopt, his father wanted to honor his grandmother and their community. She said they “make sure that the native children have a safe family and that they are brought back to another native family.”

Congress reports supporting the creation of ICWA in 1978 revealed that up to 35% of all Indigenous children were removed from their families. According to Indian National Child Welfare Association“85% of these children were placed outside of their families and communities – even when able and willing parents were available.”

Even today, Alaska Native youth are overrepresented in Alaska’s foster care system, at a rate of almost three times what is proportional and expected.

By the time Quinto came onto the scene in 1978, the Aboriginal identity of the Quinto family had embodied all different representations.

“We have Afro-Indigenous in our family, we have LGBTQ, you know all these different identities. And as an adoptee looking at my family, it didn’t even occur to me that families look alike,” she said.

These experiences gave her a different perspective on what defines family.

“The same way my grandmother erased those extended family lines, it created that ability to love people as if they were your immediate family, no matter how far apart they were,” Quinto said.

Stay close to home

By birth, Quinto is Athabaskan with a mixture of Inupiaq, Japanese, Lingít and Scottish ancestry. Even with the benefits of being adopted into the state and into the Native community, exploring her identity has been an ongoing endeavor for Quinto.

“I’m sure if there was a placement of a child across the country, they would have a harder time being culturally connected and understood,” Quinto said. “There are a lot of people who have the idea that there is this pan-Aboriginal identity among Aboriginal people, and yet it always comes down to the individual. The greater the distance, the more difficult it is.

Quinto shared that many adoptees fear and hide their differences — something she says should actually be celebrated. For all families adopting children, she believes there must be support to help adoptees confront their identities and learn about their cultures.

Today, Quinto is the director of arts education for the Juneau Arts and Humanities Council. Her own experiences in the Juneau School District led her to want to change the way culture and representation are taught in schools.

Jennifer Quinto walks with various Native groups during a parade at Celebration 2018 Saturday, June 9, 2018, in downtown Juneau, Alaska. (Photo by Tripp J. Crouse/KTOO)

Now that she has a daughter, she passes on her stories and lessons to become confident in her multidimensional identity.

“I was insulted with all the wrong insults probably at this point,” Quinto said.

She tells her daughter that “we honor all the people who have loved us”.

“You know who you are, you know what you’ve been through, and you know your own identity,” Quinto said. “How dare anyone try to dispute that?” It’s just someone telling you they don’t care enough about you to know who you are.

“Knowing, knowing and feeling intergenerational”

Plaintiffs in Haaland v. Brackeen argued that the ICWA is unconstitutional because non-natives did not get equal treatment with natives in native adoptions.

For Quinto, ICWA was never about race or skin color.

“When there are people saying things like ‘I can’t see the color,’ well, they never banned our color,” she said. “They didn’t make us illegal for, you know, anything, but the way we dance, what we sing, like, our food. They banned our way of life.

Quinto’s biological mother recently passed away and she has been building her biological family ever since.

When his biological father learned that his biological mother’s funeral was taking place, he traveled 60 miles to the village and sent Quinto a schedule of services.

“A little snippet meant everything to me,” she said. “One of the first things the show said was my birth mom called everyone aunt and uncle, and people really liked it.”

Ever since Quinto was little, she always called people around her aunt and uncle. It was one of those times when she felt like her feelings must have come from her ancestors because that wasn’t a value her adoptive family expressed.

“We often talk about intergenerational trauma, but not a lot of discussion about intergenerational knowledge, knowledge and feelings,” she said. “It took me a long time to figure it out, but it’s there and it’s incredibly powerful.”

For Quinto, ICWA helps adoptees like her stay connected to their identities and communities.

“Who could ever believe that [ICWA] would it be removed? ” she says. “It’s one of the last things that keeps our community together the way it has, so to imagine a world where that doesn’t exist is just too, too painful.”

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