Ideas. Stories. Community.
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

Colorado passes legislation protecting Native American rights

Southern Ute Tribal Chairman Melvin Baker gives remarks to commemorate signing of SB 211 and SB 202, May 4, 2023.
Courtesy of Jessie Danielson
Southern Ute Tribal Chairman Melvin Baker gives remarks to commemorate signing of SB 211 and SB 202, May 4, 2023.

On May 4, flanked by state legislators and a dozen Native Americans, Governor Jared Polis signed legislation to protect Indigenous rights in Colorado.

One piece of legislation enshrines the federal Indian Child Welfare Act as Colorado state law. When it comes to legislation, this law is very straightforward.

“It literally is one sentence long,” said Senator Jessie Danielson, one of the primary sponsors of Senate Bill 211.

“Basically it says that the state of Colorado will be protected by the Indian Child Welfare Act,” Danielson said. “If the US Supreme Court overturns it, then the state still has those basic protections.”

The 1978 Indian Child Welfare Act (ICWA) prioritizes tribal identity in welfare cases involving Native American children. It gives legal standing to family members and tribes in adoption cases. But the US Supreme Court may soon strike part or all of ICWA.

In 2017, a Texas couple challenged the law. Chad and Jennifer Brackeen, who are white, had been told they could not adopt a Navajo foster child after the Navajo Nation intervened. The Brackeens filed suit. This summer, the case–Brackeen v Haaland–reaches the US Supreme Court on appeal.

The new state law will offer temporary legal protection for Native American people in Colorado if the court strikes down all or part of the federal law. Senator Danielson says the simplicity of the Colorado law is intentional.

“If we need to take further action to work with whatever it is that the Supreme Court has come out within their case, then we can address that in the coming legislative session,” Danielson said.

According to reporting in Law Week, ten other states have passed similar legislation.

Graduates' right to wear traditional regalia

The two new laws grew out of discussions with tribal leaders across the state, and it was during those conversations Senator Danielson learned of another disturbing trend. Schools sometimes prevent Native American students from wearing traditional regalia during graduation ceremonies.

“A teacher, administrator, or principal will touch (a student’s) eagle feather and remove it from their cap,” Danielson said. “(Or) they cannot wear braids unless they put their braids up into their cap, or they can't wear their otter wrap, or they can't wear their medallion, or they can't wear their moccasins. Even though the school has no right to do that, they're doing it.”

Senate Bill 202 reinforces and elevates what is already a legal right for all Native Americans in Colorado.

“Whether it’s preschool or college, nobody can interfere with an indigenous person, a Native American person’s right to wear their regalia,” Danielson said.