Sarah Jones Breaks It Down

Tribal Sovereignty and the US Supreme Court

Episode Summary

What is tribal sovereignty? Sarah talks with Shaun Little Horn, advocacy organizer of the Lakota Law Project, about the case heading to the Supreme Court this fall, Brackeen v. Haaland.

Episode Notes

What is tribal sovereignty? Sarah talks with Shaun Little Horn, advocacy organizer of the Lakota Law Project, about the case heading to the Supreme Court this fall, Brackeen v. Haaland.

Sources Consulted:

Schumacher-Matos, E. (2013, August 9). S. Dakota Indian Foster Care 4: The mystery of a missing $100 million. NPR. Retrieved August 9, 2022, from

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Episode Transcription

Sarah Jones Breaks It Down: A Kids News Podcast

S1 EP08 Tribal Sovereignty and the US Supreme Court


Sarah: This is Sarah Jones Breaks It Down. 

I’m Sarah,  and I’m here to help us better understand what’s happening in the world. 


Because, as a journalist, that’s my job. 

And this world isn’t just filled with adults…

Jonah: Nope!

Sarah: It’s our world. 

So, every week we’ll talk about the stories that you may overhear some adults talking about and we’ll… 

Group of Kids: Break it down.

Sarah: Break. It. Down.


Sarah: Tribal Sovereignty in the United States. Let’s get into it. 

There are three types of sovereign governments in the U.S. There is the federal government, state government, and tribal governments. 

Tribal sovereignty is the right for the indigenous people of the more than 500 tribes in the US to continue to govern their own nations, as they did long before colonization. And this right is now in the hands of the Supreme Court.

Shaun Little Horn: It is going to be whether genocide finally works or not. 

I'm walking around now with a heaviness that I know my ancestors had to walk around with, and that is knowing that at any moment, this could be the end for, for me, for my family, for my way of life.


Sarah: Brackeen v. Haaland. It’s a case heading to the supreme court in November. 

And here to help break this monumental case down with me is Shaun Little Horn of the Lakota Law Project.

Shaun Little Horn: So there was a young Navajo child who was taken away from his parents.

He'd been staying with his grandparents, but a lot of places don't recognize grandparents as viable options for, for taking care of the children. So they removed the child from the Navajo nation and they put the child in a white home in Texas.

And so eventually the Navajo nation got word of this. And the Navajo nation found a very close relative who wanted to take care of the child. And it would keep the child within the community. And within his own family. 

Although it wouldn't be his, his mother and his father, he would have family that he knows, and that he's a part of.

And so the Navajo, uh, Brackeen, um, which is the name of the family that had, had tried to adopt a child, they filed to try to not give the child back to the Navajo nation and the courts very quickly overturn that. 

And, and this blows my mind. Six days later, uh, Gibson and Gibson Dunn Law Firm, which is most known for representing big oil companies, as well as DAPL and Line 3. And they get involved.

They're working pro bono by the way, for free. The main way they're trying to sue is saying that the white family is facing reverse racial discrimination.

And what they're saying is is that we are a race, we are not nations. And since we are a race and we are not nations, we are giving, giving special privileges because of our race that they, as white people are not entitled to, or able to receive. 

Now, this should have never gone before the Supreme Court or been taken up by the Supreme court. 

Sarah: Shaun says this because a treaty by definition “a formally concluded and ratified agreement between countries.”

Shaun Little Horn: The United States already settled this issue, or should have settled this issue, when they've made treaties with us. And as we talked about before the Article Six, Section Two of the us constitution says, “All treaties shall be…” It doesn’t say “they should be” or “could be”. You know? “...Should be considered to be all treaties shall be the supreme law of the land

And so what we're asking right now is for United States of America to live up to their own laws and to keep their hands out of our children and let us raise our own children. 

Sarah: The ruling that this impacts is called the Indian Child Welfare Act or ICWA.

Shaun Little Horn: The Indian Child Welfare Act states that, as indigenous nations and as tribal citizens, that we have the right to know what's best for our children.

Sarah: A right which was purposely denied through colonization. And one of the most horrific forms of forced assimilation carried out in the US on indigenous peoples were what is known as the residential schools.

Shaun Little Horn: These children would arrive. They would cut their hair. They would remove their clothes. They would strip 'em of their culture. They would be beaten if they spoke their language, they would be beaten if they'd done any of these type things, they were harshly, uh, treated sexually abused, and it was the most defining moment, negatively, for our people. 

These separated us from our, our, our, our families, our communities, our language, our life way, our spirituality. And it almost worked. They almost killed us. 

Sarah: Then in the 1970s came the second wounded knee battle in South Dakota.

Shaun Little Horn: In fact, five miles from where I live right now and where I'm talking to you from is Wounded Knee, is where they occupy for over 70 days, you know, in a, in gunfights with the United States government and, and FBI. 

And, and eventually they came to an agreement and ceasefire, and ultimately this led to 1978, where the Indian Child Welfare Act was passed.

Also from that was the Indian Religious Freedom Act. I think it's important for people to know that we could not celebrate our own spirituality without the fear of going to prison until 1978. Uh, I was born in ‘79 to put that in perspective again how recent these, these laws were, were instituted, where over the last 40 years, things like ICWA have been huge for us.

Sarah: ICWA helps preserve cultural identity for nations who have survived forced assimilaition and genocide for generations. 

Shaun Little Horn: So what's supposed to happen if a child is removed from a tribal citizen's home., the tribal nation is supposed to have the first right to try to keep that child within our nation so that we're able to keep our way of life so that we're able to keep our, our, our spirituality, our ceremonies, our language, all the things that make us who we are as a people that we're allowed to keep our children within that, which history and statistics and studies have proven is far better for our children than to be removed from a culture and put into non-, more, particularly mostly-white homes where the life and the belief system and everything else is completely opposite. 

Sarah: And it’s still very relevant today- 

Shaun Little Horn: So in South Dakota, we're about 12% of the population. We're well over 50% of the children in Child Protective Services. And of those, 90% go into, um, white homes.

And, they have a financial incentive because our children are automatically labeled special needs. They have a financial incentive to keep them within the system.

Sarah: That financial incentive, translates into millions of dollars of federal funding for states (source). 

But for tribal nations, ICWA isn’t just about keeping families together and preserving culture and tradition across generations. It is currently the legislative gatekeeper of tribal sovereignty in the US. 

Shaun Little Horn: If it is overturned. Now what happens is, you know, DAPL that they represent can come into our tribal lands and they can, they can say, “Listen, we have a right to run pipelines through this land because they're not nations, they're a race.

It potentially could erase all tribal sovereignty, where we could wake up in the very near future and there no longer be tribal nations. And we be completely erased despite everything, five unelected people could make that decision. 

Sarah: The Lakota Law Project says it’s preparing to take the legislative fight to the state level if the Supreme Court overturns ICWA.

Shaun Little Horn: We're immediately gonna try to get new legislation passed to protect it. 

All we wanted to do was be left alone and live our lives that we always lived our lives. And what we're saying as Indigenous people is we wanna be in harmony with the United States.

So it takes about 30 seconds. It doesn't cost you a dime, but if you can go to and, and submit. Submit that form to show, show and con it'll not automatically contact your, your Congress people and let them know that you won't tribal nations to remain sovereign and you want our children to be protected.

We're seeing such a revival within our communities and our language and our likelihoods and our spirituality, but it will be open season on our children if ICWA was overturned and no new legislations passed. I will be just like, it will be just like the days of land SWS and, and just like the days of “Kill the Indian, Save the Man: boarding schools. We will have no say over our own children. 

It crushes me in a way I can express with words and I, and I tell our people all the time. We're at the moment in the crossroads in time that we are going to have to fight back however, necessary to protect our way of life, that our ancestors fought for, but while you see me or you hear my voice right now, I've got thousands of ancestors behind me that are empowering us to go forward and fight, to try to keep our way of life.


Sarah: So now you know a little bit more about tribal sovereignty and the monumental case heading to the supreme court this fall called Brackeen v. Haaland. It’s one that should be in the headlines, but isn’t. And there are so many other stories that are also underreported and shouldn’t be. 

But here on “Sarah Jones Breaks It Down” we know that everyone matters…

Group of Kids: Everyone matters.

Sarah: So let’s talk about another current event that’s happening our world that isn’t getting as much attention but should be. 

Algeria, it’s a country in North Africa right in between Tunisia and Morocco. 

The French colonized Algeria for 132 years and Algeria won its independence in 1962 after an eight-year war that claimed the lives of between 400,000 to a million Algerians.

Currently, students learn French from nine years old and English is offered once students are 14. But that’s about to change. 

The President of Algeria recently announced English is going to be taught in primary school. This is an issue that has been discussed for decades in Algeria because of the tension and sensitivities of using French, the language of its former colonizer.

The president of Algeria plans to expand English into primary schools as a part of Algeria’s efforts to replace French with Arabic on official documents and to become more anglophone, or english speaking.


Sarah: Thank you for listening and for breaking it down with me today.

If you have a question about Algeria, or tribal sovereignty or if there’s something else going on in the world that you want us to break down, write to us or record a message and email us at

Sarah Jones Breaks It Down is written and reported by me, Sarah Jones. You can learn more about me and my work at

Our show is edited and produced by Matthew Winner with help from Chad Michael Snavely and the team at Sound On Studios. Our executive producer is Jelani Memory. And this show was brought to you by A Kids Podcast About.

Follow the show on Apple Podcasts or wherever podcasts are found and check out other podcasts made for kids just like you by visiting

Thank you for hanging out with me and stay curious!