Mississippi Band of Choctaw Indians v. Holyfield

From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia
Jump to: navigation, search
Mississippi Band of Choctaw Indians v. Holyfield
Seal of the United States Supreme Court.svg
Argued January 11, 1989
Decided April 3, 1989
Full case name Mississippi Band of Choctaw Indians v. Orrey Curtiss Holyfield et ux., J.B., Natural Mother and W.J., Natural Father
Citations 490 U.S. 30 (more)
109 S. Ct. 1597; 104 L. Ed. 2d 29
Prior history In the Matter of B.B. and G.B., Minors, 511 So. 2d 918 (Miss. 1987)
Argument Oral argument
That: (1) though “domicile” in the Indian Child Welfare Act was not statutorily defined, Congress did not intend for state courts to define that term as matter of state law, and (2) children were “domiciled” on reservation when both parents lived on the reservation, and the state court was without jurisdiction to enter adoption decree
Court membership
Case opinions
Majority J. Brennan, joined by JJ. White, Marshall, Blackmun, O'Connor and Scalia
Dissent J. Stevens, joined by C.J. Rehnquist and J. Kennedy
Laws applied
25 U.S.C. §§ 19011963

Mississippi Band of Choctaw Indians v. Holyfield, 490 U.S. 30 (1989), was a case in which the Supreme Court of the United States held that the Indian Child Welfare Act governed adoptions of Indian children, and a tribal court had jurisdiction over a state court regardless of the location of birth of the child if the child or the natural parents resided on the reservation.[1]


History of removal[edit]

From 1850 to about 1960, American Indian children were forcibly taken from their families and their tribes in what has been described as assimilation and genocide.[2] Indian children were punished for speaking their own language.[3] Reformers wanted the Indians to choose "assimilation over extinction."[4] In 1890 approximately 12,000 Indian children were being held at Indian boarding schools,[5] and according to the Commissioner of Indian Affairs:

"The general purpose of the Government is the preparation of Indian youth for assimilation into the national life by such a course in training as will prepare them for the duties and privileges of American citizenship."[6][a]

By 1928 this form of assimilation was no longer popular with the public, and the Meriam Report condemned the practice of forcibly removing Indian children from their families.[8][b] This type of removal ended during the 1930s, but after World War II ended another type of removal started, where Indian children were removed for adoption or placed in foster care.[10] In many cases, the dominant non-Indian culture justified the removal in order to protect or rescue the children from barbarism on the reservation.[11] Indian children were placed outside of the home at a rate five times greater than non-Indian children.[12][c]

Indian Child Welfare Act[edit]

In 1978, Congress passed the Indian Child Welfare Act (ICWA).[14] This law was enacted due to the high rate of Indian Children that were being removed from their families and their tribes, with tribe survival being threatened.[15] In many cases, the children were removed from families who resided on Indian reservations, where the state government did not have jurisdiction.[16] Many parents and children were denied due process, either by the state agency or the state court, leading to a finding by Congress that the states had failed to recognize tribal culture, relations, and standards.[17] This led Congress to set up both procedural and substantive provisions in the ICWA that are designed to 1) eliminate the need to remove Indian children due to cultural bias; 2) try to insure that Indian children are place in foster and adoptive homes that reflect Indian culture; and 3) to promote the use of tribal, rather than state, courts to adjudicate Indian child custody proceedings.[18]

The ICWA gives the tribal court exclusive jurisdiction for children that are born or that live on tribal land, and concurrent jurisdiction with state courts in all other cases.[19]

Lower courts[edit]

In 1985, a set of Indian twins were born in Harrison County, Mississippi, 200 miles from the Mississippi Band of Choctaw Indians. The mother had moved to Harrison County for the sole purpose of giving birth off the reservation and for placing the children with the Holyfields.[20] The parents were not married, and both parents executed a consent for adoption in the Harrison County Chancery Court and the Holyfields, a non-Indian couple adopted the children. The court signed a final decree of adoption in early 1986. Two months later, the tribe moved to vacate the adoption, stating that the tribal court had exclusive jurisdiction. The state trial court denied their motion, noting that the children had never lived on the reservation and were not born there. The tribe appealed to the Mississippi Supreme Court, which affirmed the trial courts decision.[21] The tribe appealed. The Supreme Court granted certiorari.[22]

Opinion of the Court[edit]

Justice William J. Brennan delivered the opinion of the court. Brennan reviewed the intent of Congress and noted that one in eight Indian children were adopted out and that 90% of those children went to non-Indian homes. He noted that for children born or residing on a reservation, the tribal court has exclusive jurisdiction. In other cases, the tribal courts have concurrent jurisdiction. In those cases, on the motion of a parent or the tribe, the matter is to be transferred to the tribal court with three exceptions - for "good cause," objection to the transfer by either parent, or the declination of jurisdiction in the matter by the tribal court.[23] The emphasis the Mississippi Supreme Court placed on the domicile of the children, the fact that they were never on the reservation, and the voluntary relinquishment by the natural parents was error.[24]

Both of the natural parents resided on the reservation. A child's domicile follows that of the parent. The fact that the parents traveled 200 miles to avoid giving birth on the reservation does not serve to eliminate the tribal court's exclusive jurisdiction. Since the tribal court had such jurisdiction, the state court did not, and had no authority to enter an order of adoption. Reversed and remanded.[25]


Justice John P. Stevens, joined by Chief Justice William Rehnquist and Justice Anthony Kennedy dissented from the majority opinion. Stevens felt that since the parents consented to the adoption and wanted to use the state court, they should be allowed to do so. Stevens believed that the ICWA was primarily for the involuntary removal of Indian children from their families and the tribe, and a voluntary action does not have the same characteristics. Stevens would have affirmed the decision of the state courts.[26]

Subsequent Developments[edit]

After the remand from the Supreme Court, the tribal court allowed the children to remain with their adoptive family, because “it would have been cruel to take them from the only mother they knew.” The court ordered that the children stay in contact with their extended family and tribe.[27]

The case has had a large impact on family law involving Indian children, having been cited in over 1,000 cases since the decision. It has also been extensively referenced in books[28] and journals on Native American law.[29]

Although the Supreme Court was clear that the ICWA was to be applied to adoption cases based on the statute and the accompanying House Report, "by making sure that Indian child welfare determinations are not based on "a white, middle-class standard..."",[30] state courts created an "existing Indian family"[31] exception to the application of the ICWA.[32] In those cases, courts had held if the child was not part of an existing Indian family, a term that was not defined anywhere in the law, then the ICWA did not apply. At one point, nearly half of the states used the exception.[33] As of 2010, only six states use the exception. It now appears that tribal interests are being viewed by the courts as importantly as the child's interests in these cases. [34]


  1. ^ Indians would not become American Citizens until Congress passed the Indian Citizenship Act in 1924.[7]
  2. ^ The team that created the Meriam Report was headed by Lewis Meriam, who had a Bachelors degree in economics and a Masters degree in government from Harvard University, and law degrees from National University School of Law and George Washington University.[9]
  3. ^ Up to 25-35% of Indian children were placed in foster care at some point in their lives.[13]


The citations in this Article are written in Bluebook
style. Please see the Talk page for this Article.
  1. ^ Mississippi Band of Choctaw Indians v. Holyfield, 490 U.S. 30 (1989)
  2. ^ Terri Libesman, Decolonising Indigenous Child Welfare: Comparative Perspectives 108 (2013); Ronald Niezen, Spirit Wars: Native North American Religions in the Age of Nation Building 68 (2000).
  3. ^ Libesman, at 108.
  4. ^ David Wallace Adams, Education for Extinction: American Indians and the Boarding School Experience, 1875-1928, 16 (1995).
  5. ^ Walter L. Hixson, American Settler Colonialism 141 (2013).
  6. ^ Adams, at 24.
  7. ^ Indian Citizenship Act, June 2, 1924, Pub.L. 68–175, 43 Stat. 253; 4 Indian Affairs: Laws and Treaties 1165 (Charles J. Kappler ed., 1929).
  8. ^ Margaret D. Jacobs, White Mother to a Dark Race: Settler Colonialism, Maternalism, and the Removal of Indigenous Children in the American West and Australia, 1880-1940, 407 (2009); Niezen, at 68.
  9. ^ Institute for Gov't Research, The Problem of Indian Administration 79 (Lewis Meriam et al. eds. 1928).
  10. ^ Boarding School Blues: Revisiting American Indian Educational Experiences 205-05 (Clifford E. Trafzer, Jean A. Keller, & Lorene Sisquoc eds., 2006).
  11. ^ Trafzer, at 206-07.
  12. ^ 3 Handbook of Child Psychology: Social, Emotional, and Personality Development 481 (William Damon, Richard M. Lerner, & Nancy Eisenberg eds., 2006).
  13. ^ Billy Joe Jones, Mark Tilden, & Kelly Gaines-Stoner, The Indian Child Welfare Act Handbook: A Legal Guide to the Custody and Adoption of Native American Children 2 (2d ed. 2008).
  14. ^ Indian Child Welfare Act, Nov. 8, 1978, Pub.L. 95–608, 92 Stat. 3069 (codified at 25 U.S.C. §§ 19011963).
  15. ^ Jones, at 2.
  16. ^ Jones, at 2.
  17. ^ 25 U.S.C. § 1901(5); Jones, at 4-5.
  18. ^ Jones, at 4-5.
  19. ^ 25 U.S.C. § 1911; Mississippi Band of Choctaw Indians v. Holyfield, 490 U.S. 30, 36 (1989).
  20. ^ Solangel Maldonaldo, Race, Culture, and Adoption: Lessons from Mississippi Band of Choctaw Indians v. Holyfield, 17 Colum. J. of Gender & L. 1 (2008).
  21. ^ Holyfield, 490 U.S. at ___; In the matter of B.B. and G.B., Minors, 511 So.2d 918 (Miss. 1987).
  22. ^ Holyfield, 490 U.S. at ___
  23. ^ 25 U.S.C. § 1911.
  24. ^ Holyfield, 490 U.S. at ___
  25. ^ Holyfield, 490 U.S. at ___
  26. ^ Holyfield, 490 U.S. at ___
  27. ^ Adam Liptak, Case Pits Adoptive Parents Against Tribal Rights, N.Y. Times, Dec. 25, 2012, at A12.
  28. ^ N. Bruce Duthu, American Indians and the Law ___ (2008); Jones, at ___; Lynn D. Wardle, Fundamental Principles of Family Law ___ (2005).
  29. ^ Diane Allbaugh, Tribal Jurisdiction over Indian Children: Mississippi Band of Choctaw Indians v. Holyfield, 16 Am. Indian L. Rev. 533 (1991); Maldonaldo, 17 Colum. J. of Gender & L. at 1; Stan Watts, Voluntary Adoptions Under the Indian Child Welfare Act of 1978: Balancing the Interests of Children, Families, and Tribes, 63 S. Cal. L. Rev. 213 (1989).
  30. ^ Holyfield, 490 U.S. at ___
  31. ^ In the Matter of the Adoption of Baby Boy L., 643 P.2d 168 (Kan. 1982) ("the Act is concerned with the removal of Indian children from an existing Indian family unit and the resultant breakup of the Indian family") (emphasis added), overruled by In re A.J.S., 204 P.3d 543 (Kan. 2010).
  32. ^ Dan Lewerenz & Padraic McCoy, The End of the "Existing Indian Family" Jurisprudence: Holyfield at 20, In the Matter of A.J.S. and the Last Gasps of a Dying Doctrine, 36 Wm. Mitchell L. Rev. 684 (2010).
  33. ^ Lewerenz, 36 Wm. Mitchell L. Rev. at ___.
  34. ^ Lewerenz, 36 Wm. Mitchell L. Rev. at ___.

External links[edit]

Mississippi Band of Choctaw Indians v. Holyfield, 490 U.S. 30 (1989) Works related to Mississippi Band of Choctaw Indians v. Holyfield at Wikisource