Nebraska's Tool Kit for Systems Involved in the Education of Students in Out-of-Home Care

Tool E-1:  Frequently Asked Questions
Native American Students and the Indian Child
Welfare Acts

Part Six: Diverse Student Populations
Section E. Native American Students

young girl smilingThe following summarizes questions often posed by the primary systems involved in the education of Native American students in out-of-home care. The responses are based on federal law, Nebraska statute and professional experience in working with Native American families and tribes. There are unique legal considerations which may play a role in education of Native American students in out-of-home placements, depending upon whether they are a ward of a Tribal Court, under the jurisdiction of a Nebraska Juvenile Court or criminal court (County Court or District Court), or the subject of Indian Child Welfare Act child custody proceedings.

Tribal cultures may also play an important role in the way in which Native American students interact with their environment and learn from their surroundings. There are many similarities between tribes, but there are also differences in traditions and child rearing practices within and among the 564 federally recognized tribes. Not all generalizations will apply to any student, family or tribe. Familiarity with the individual child or youth’s needs and specific set of circumstances, family situation, Court protocols and tribal culture is recommended as a matter of “best practice” and may greatly assist in advocating for that student and achievement of his or her academic and vocational goals.

For more information about the Nebraska Indian Child Welfare Act (ICWA), refer to Nebraska Revised Statutes (NRS) §43-1501 to 43-1516. For additional information about working with Native American Children, Families and Tribes, contact the Nebraska Department of Health and Human Services – Indian Child Welfare Program Specialist, Sherri Eveleth: or call: (402) 370-4216 or (402) 750-0743.

For more information about working with Native American Students, refer to the Nebraska Department of Education - Multicultural and Native American Education Program website: or call: (402) 471-2960.


Native American Tribes and Tribal Courts in Nebraska

1. Which Native American tribes have governmental headquarters in Nebraska?
The Omaha Tribe, Ponca Tribe, Winnebago Tribe, and Santee Sioux Nation all have governmental headquarters located in Nebraska.

For more information about Native American Tribes in Nebraska and Map of Their Locations, refer to the Native American Indian Resources website:

Additional information on the Omaha Tribe, Ponca Tribe, Winnebago Tribe, and Santee Sioux Nation is available on the Nebraska Commission on Indian Affairs website:

2. What are Tribal Courts and over whom do they have jurisdiction?

Each of the tribes with governmental headquarters in Nebraska operates a Tribal Court. Tribal Courts have jurisdiction over tribal members and limited jurisdiction over non-members, including non-Native Americans. Tribal Courts adjudicate civil and criminal cases, including child custody proceedings, domestic violence protection orders, family law, juvenile law, landlord/tenant law, contract disputes and criminal acts. (Source: Nebraska Revised Statute (NRS) §43-1503(12)


The Indian Child Welfare Acts

1. What are the Indian Child Welfare Acts (ICWA) and how do they apply to Native American children?
The Indian Child Welfare Act is a federal law enacted in 1978. The Nebraska Legislature enacted the Nebraska Indian Child Welfare Act in 1985 with the same substantive provisions as the federal law. The ICWAs provide heightened protections for Native American children and youth involved in child custody proceedings who are members of or eligible for membership in a federally recognized tribe.

For ICWA purposes, child custody proceedings include: foster care, guardianship, out-of-home placement, pre-adoptive or adoptive placement, and termination of parental rights. This does not include child custody in divorce proceedings or placement based on an act committed by a Native American child or youth that would be a crime if committed by an adult.

ICWA provisions apply in both public and private Court proceedings. Public proceedings are those involving the Nebraska Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS) or another state's Child Protective Services agency. Private proceedings are cases where no State agency is involved, but someone other than the biological parent may be awarded custody (e.g., step-parent adoptions, grandparent custody cases, and guardianships). (Source: Nebraska Revised Statutes §43-1501 to 43-1504)

2. Under the Nebraska Indian Child Welfare Act, how is an "Indian Child" defined?
An "Indian Child" is any unmarried Native American person who is less than eighteen (18) years of age and is either:

  • A member of an "Indian Tribe"; or
  • Is eligible for membership in an "Indian Tribe" and is the biological child of a member of a tribe.
    (Source: Nebraska Revised Statute §43-1503(4)

3. If a Native American student is a Tribal Ward, who has legal custody and education decision-making authority for that child or youth?
A Native American child who is a Tribal Ward is in the legal custody of the Tribal Court. Tribal Child Protective Services (CPS) staff have case management and service coordination responsibilities for children and youth who are Tribal Wards, just as the Nebraska Department of Health and Human Services is responsible for State Wards. Tribal CPS staff are authorized by the Tribal Court to make all legal decisions concerning Tribal Wards, including education and out-of-home placement. Whereas, education decisions for a State Ward in the care and custody of DHHS must be made by that child's parent or a surrogate parent appointed by the Juvenile Court or school district.

For more information about Tribal Child Protective Services for tribes with governmental headquarters located in Nebraska, refer to the following websites:

For additional information about Child Protective Services within a Specific Tribe, contact the Nebraska Department of Health and Human Services - Indian Child Welfare Program Specialist, Sherri Eveleth:, or call: (402) 370-4216 or (402) 750-0743.

4. Under the Nebraska Indian Child Welfare Act, how is an "Indian Custodian" defined?

An "Indian Custodian" is any Native American person who has legal custody of an "Indian Child" under tribal law or custom, or under State law. An "Indian Custodian" may also be a Native American person to whom temporary physical care, custody and control has been transferred by the child's parent. For ICWA purposes, an "Indian Custodian" has the rights of a parent. (Source: Nebraska Revised Statute §43-1503(6)

5. Under the Nebraska Indian Child Welfare Act, how is an "Extended Family Member" defined?
An "Extended Family Member" is defined by the law or custom of the tribe. Some tribes recognize individuals as family members which are not recognized by mainstream society. Some tribal cultures have roles within the family assigned to different family members, such as an uncle being responsible for discipline of a child, or a family member other than the parent being responsible for the child's education. Some tribes are matrilineal and some are patrilineal; some tribes recognize maternal aunts as mothers to a child, while others recognize paternal uncles as fathers to a child. Some tribes recognize great aunts and great uncles as grandmothers and grandfathers, respectively. Some tribes recognize clan or band members or other non-blood relatives as extended family members with legally cognizable relationships.

For ICWA purposes, in the absence of tribal law or custom, an extended family member is a grandparent, aunt or uncle, brother or sister, brother-in-law or sister-in-law, niece or nephew, first or second cousin, or step-parent. (Source: Nebraska Revised Statute §43-1503(2)


Native American Students and Families

1. What are some key considerations for educators when working with Native American students and their families?
It is important to understand Native American families range from very traditional to very assimilated. When working with any family, Native or non-Native, it is helpful to know what their beliefs are about the public education system and how they view their role in the student's formal education.

You may be working with family members other than parents. This could be in conjunction with the student's parents or instead of the parents. An aunt, uncle or grandparent may actually have custody of the child or may come to school with the parent to provide advice or support.

Stereotypes can influence how we teach and work with students and their families. While we all see the world through the lens in which we grew up, it is important to remember what we see is not the only way things are or should be. Our views are based on personal experience, preferences and circumstances, which may be different than the families we serve. It is important to be non-judgmental of the student's family dynamics and particular set of circumstances.

2. Why are Native American families sometimes reluctant to work with the school?
Many Native American families are wary of the public education system due to a variety of reasons, such as past discrimination in various forms, personal history of unsuccessful school experiences, lack of trust in the system, and the ongoing effects of historical trauma. Schools, governmental agencies and communities have little history of sustained success and system change within the Native American community.

3. Are there differences between working with Native American students and their families on and off the reservation?
While there are some similarities in issues faced by Native Americans on and off the reservation, there are also many differences. There will be differences in Native families that practice traditional ways, those which have a great deal of or minimal contact with small or large tribal communities, those who have spent years on the reservation, and those living in urban settings. There will also be differences in tribal members who attended boarding schools, those raised in an extended family on the reservation, and those raised by their family in an urban setting.

It is also important to understand not all Native Americans live in poverty, have issues with alcoholism or drug addiction, or are in poor health. However, many do and those issues affect tribal members living both on and off the reservation.

  • On the Reservation - There may be more extended family support; easier access to social service programs (tribal health care system, commodity food distribution, elderly programs and housing assistance); less need for transportation assistance; and tribal colleges with the various programs they offer.
  • Off the Reservation - There may be less extended family in the immediate area but access to more mental health and substance abuse treatment services. Those new to urban areas may have to learn how to use the public transportation system.

4. What is the best way to communicate with Native American families and encourage involvement in the student's education?
There is no one "right way" to work with Native American families. Just as with every other culture or social group, each family has its own unique style of communication and interaction with each other and with those around them. Not all parents are able to receive emails or have Internet access, will read newsletters or notes sent home from school, or are comfortable communicating with school officials. Having a variety of people on staff that families are comfortable with may help in finding the most effective way to advocate for the student and achievement of his or her academic and vocational goals.

Do not interpret a parent's lack of physically being in the school building as a lack of support for the student's education. There are various reasons why parents - Native and non-Native - do not attend Parent/Teacher Conferences, volunteer in the classroom, or participate in school functions. Find creative ways to involve parents, both at home or away from school as well as in school. Search out programs and projects which create low stress parental involvement.

5. Are there differences in the ways Native American students learn compared to non-Native students?
Although there are exceptions to generalizations, in most cases there are differences in the ways Native American students learn. There are also differences in many tribal cultures which may have an impact on learning. Many Native American cultures emphasize the importance of extended family, personal relationships (including non-biological relationships), collective well-being, and respect for elders. There is often less importance placed upon individualism, time schedules and material possessions. There may be different ways of communicating and different meanings to communication. In some tribal cultures, making or holding eye contact is viewed as a sign of disrespect, but in mainstream society, failure to make eye contact is often seen as a sign of deception or depression.

6. How can schools help Native American students be successful academically?
Consider how well the school's policies, procedures and programs support Native American students and their families. Implement programs, curricula, educational materials and resources which support the use of positive Native American role models throughout the school system.



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