The Infrastructure Bill: What It Includes and What Remains To Be Done

CNN/KKTV 1On November 15th, President Biden signed the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act (IIJA). The bill represents the culmination of months of negotiations between House Democrats and Republicans as well as within the two parties. The goal of this US infrastructure bill is to significantly revitalize and modernize American infrastructure – the various systems, equipment, and structures that make modern life possible. Although significantly less than the original bill, the $1.2 trillion package represents one of the most significant investments by the federal government in infrastructure since the Great Depression.1

What the 2021 Infrastructure Bill Includes

The Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act invests billions of dollars into a wide range of areas: roads, bridges, ports, railways, water systems, power grids, and internet access. This includes money for the construction of electric vehicle charging stations and $5 billion for electric and hybrid school buses, $15 billion for replacing toxic lead water pipes, and investments to help reach the 19% of American homes that still lack internet access.2 These elements represent only a small part of the overall scope of the bill which the White House has compared to the Transcontinental Railroad or Interstate Highway system in its importance for the future.3

A Long Fight, Far From Over

Originally the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act of 2021 had been part of the broader Build Back Better plan – a three part series of new legislation which aimed to help the US recover from the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic. This effort began with the $1.9 trillion American Rescue Plan passed earlier in the year but continued efforts stalled as additional legislation faced staunch Republican opposition as well as opposition from senators and representatives within the Democratic Party. In an effort to build support, the IIJA was separated from the additional $1.75 trillion investments in families, climate, health and other areas which now make up the pending Build Back Better Act which has still not been passed.4

Ultimately, the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act passed the Senate in a 69-30 vote, receiving the support of 19 Republicans while it passed the House 278-206, with support from 13 Republicans and opposition from 6 Democrats.5 The Republicans who voted for the bill argued that it was beneficial to the interests of the people they represent and helpful to the country in many ways. These 13 Republicans in the House and many of the Republican Senators who supported the 2021 infrastructure bill have subsequently been ridiculed by many of their fellow Republican members and have received numerous death threats.6

Meanwhile, the US infrastructure bill was opposed by 6 Democrats on the grounds that they were not guaranteed the additional investments represented by the Build Back Better Act would be passed into law. Critics also noted that while the bill has a $1.2 trillion price tag only $550 billion of that is new spending.7 Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) has publicly committed to passing both bills though exactly what will be included in the Build Back Better Act after more negotiations remains unknown.8

Discussion Questions

  1. What needs do you see in your own community that you think should be priority for government investment/funding?
  2. What is the most pressing issue that you feel the government should be addressing? Are there any areas covered in the IIJA that you feel the government shouldn’t be investing in or hasn’t invested enough in?
  3. Should the federal government be responsible for making the kinds of investments detailed in the IIJA? Should some or all of these investments be left to states or even to private businesses instead?
  4. Consider the length of time it has taken to get the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act of 2021 passed, the closeness of the votes, and the threats received by those who supported it. What does this process indicate about the state of American government and democracy?

As always, we encourage you to join the discussion with your comments or questions below!



Featured Image Credit: CNN/KKTV 11


Indian Boarding Schools: The Truth and Healing Commission

Carlisle Indian School Digital Resource Center via MDPIIn September 2021, a bipartisan group of senators and representatives reintroduced the Truth and Healing Commission on Indian Boarding School Policies in the United States Act, which would establish a commission to “investigate, document, and acknowledge past injustices of the federal government’s Indian Boarding School Policies.”1 The Truth and Healing Commission would use its findings to recommend actions to best redress the historical trauma and long-term impacts of those policies.

In the late 1800s, more than 350 US Indian boarding schools (also known as residential schools) were established.2 Native children—some as young as three years old—were forcibly taken from their families and compelled to attend. Families who refused to give up their children were denied food, supplies, and other critical support by the Bureau of Indian Affairs—all things that should have been guaranteed by treaties.3

Once in the schools, Native children were required to assimilate to the ideals and norms of mainstream white society.4 Instead of being focused on education, they were Indian reeducation schools. The children were denied traditional meals and clothing, required to cut their hair, and punished for speaking their native languages, thus effectively stripping them of their culture.5

The white Americans who operated the schools viewed Native culture as inferior—something to be “corrected” by being erased. Quite simply, their mission was to “kill the Indian, save the man,” a phrase which is attributed to Lieutenant Colonel Richard Henry Pratt, the founder of the first US Indian boarding school.6 These actions, coupled with instances of neglect and abuse, have been condemned as human rights violations and acts of “cultural genocide” that have never been fully acknowledged or healed.7

Substandard medical care left Native children exposed to disease and death; those who died were often buried anonymously in shallow graves, their families denied closure and accountability. Numerous survivors have shared their own stories of psychological, physical, and sexual abuse they faced while at the boarding schools.8 Recently, non-Native Americans have become more aware of the scope of trauma and tragedy with the discovery of hundreds of graves on the grounds of former boarding schools, including more than 170 graves recently discovered in Carson City, Nevada.9 Thousands of graves of Native children were identified at former boarding schools in Canada as well.10 Preston McBride, a researcher at the University of Southern California, estimates that there could be up to 40,000 such graves across the United States.11

The Truth and Healing Commission on Indian Boarding School Policies in the United States Act would build upon investigations announced this summer by Secretary of the Interior Deb Haaland to search for children’s remains at former boarding schools.12 Haaland has her own connection to this issue, as her grandparents were forced to attend boarding schools. As a former U.S. representative herself, Haaland first introduced a version of the Truth and Healing Commission bill in the previous Congress.13

Although these boarding schools have not been in operation for decades, their effects linger in Native communities and in the conscious of our country. “The U.S. Indian Boarding School Policies stripped children from their families and their cultures—actions that continue to impact Native American, Alaska Native, and Native Hawaiian communities today,” said Representative Sharice Davids, D-Kan., one of the bill’s cosponsors. “Our country must do better to acknowledge its legacy and understand the full truth of these policies. This commission is a critical step to allow Native families and communities to begin to heal from the intergenerational trauma.”14

Discussion Questions

  1. For some non-Native Americans, the first time they heard about Indian boarding schools was though news coverage of mass graves found across Canada and the United States. Did you see these reports over the past year? Had you learned about Indian boarding schools prior to those discoveries?
  2. What might be some benefits of having a commission established by Congress in addition to the investigations that have already been launched by the Department of the Interior?
  3. What actions do you think a potential Truth and Healing Commission on Indian Boarding School Policies in the United States might recommend, based on the issues it seeks to address?
  4. The last Indian boarding school closed in 1996.15 Although their practices were sanctioned by the U.S. government and documented for decades, why do you think it took so long to raise awareness about and take steps to address these wrongs?

As always, we encourage you to join the discussion with your comments or questions below!



Featured Image Credit: Carlisle Indian School Digital Resource Center via MDPI
[1] Senator Elizabeth Warren:
[2] Reno News & Review:
[3] Teen Vogue:
[4] Reno News & Review:
[5] NPR:
[6] Ibid.
[7] Reno News & Review:
[8] The Week:
[9] Reno News & Review:
[10] Teen Vogue:
[11] NPR:
[12] The Week:
[13] Ibid.
[14] Senator Elizabeth Warren:
[15] New York Times:


Brackeen v. Haaland, Part 2: Challenging the Indian Child Welfare Act

Part 2: The Current Debate Facing the U.S. Supreme Court

For more information about the Indian Child Welfare Act (ICWA) of 1978 and the history of its enactment, please read part one of this series.

Brackeen v. Haaland is a complex case that challenges the constitutionality of the ICWA. In the opinion of some, the case also questions the validity and legality of the sovereignty of Native nations (their ability to govern themselves independently of the U.S. government).

The Indian Child Welfare Act establishes guidelines for how states should handle issues regarding Native children in the child welfare system. The guidelines include addressing child abuse and neglect cases, foster and adoption cases, removal, and out-of-home placement.1 The law gives Native communities a seat at the decision-making table when placing Native children in homes. And not unlike the traditional child welfare system, it prioritizes keeping Native children with members of their tribe whenever possible. The goal of the law is to keep families together, protect the rights of Native people to govern themselves, and support their cultural independence following decades of forced separation and assimilation attempts by the U.S. government.

What Is the Case About and What Questions Are Being Asked of the Court?

The plaintiffs brought the lawsuit in Brackeen v. Haaland in January 2020. The plaintiffs include several couples who hope to adopt or foster children from Indian nations, a woman who wishes for her child of Native descent to be adopted by non-Native people, and the states of Texas, Louisiana, and Indiana which believe the ICWA to be unconstitutional.2  The defendants in the case are the United States, federal agencies (including Secretary of the Interior Deb Haaland), officials responsible for administering the ICWA, and several Indian tribes which stepped in to support the ICWA.3

The case began with a married couple from Texas. The couple fostered multiple non-infant children from the Cherokee Nation over several years. Behavioral issues among those children led the couple to seek to foster and adopt a baby boy, whom they eventually renamed Antonio. Antonio is a baby boy from the Cherokee Nation whose mother had issues with drug addiction—an issue in Native communities that often goes hand-in-hand with generational poverty and systemic oppression. After fostering for a year, the Brackeens decided to adopt with the blessing of the baby’s mother. However, the ICWA gives Native nations the ability to locate a family within the tribe before allowing for adoption by non-Native families. This rule prevented the Brackeens’ adoption from happening because the Cherokee Nation found a family willing to adopt the baby. Dissatisfied with this rule, the Brackeens decided to go to court to fight the ICWA adoption decision. With the support of the attorney general of Texas and others, the couple fought the law.

The primary issue in the case is whether the ICWA is unconstitutional. The two major questions are: (1) Is the ICWA unconstitutional on the basis of racial discrimination, because it favors Native families in the adoption of Native children? (2) Is this favoring granted by the ICWA an overreach of Congress’ powers in Article I because it impedes the right of states to set standards for placement of children in the child welfare system?4

What Has Already Happened in the Case and Where Is the Case Now?

The first decision in the case came in August 2018, when a judge’s ICWA ruling stated that it’s unconstitutional because it treats Native children as a different “race.” The defendants appealed the decision.

On April 6, 2021, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit released an en banc decision following a hearing by 16 federal judges in Brackeen v. Haaland. En banc is a term used when all judges from a particular court hear a case (in this instance, all judges from the Fifth Circuit).5 The decision document that was released is more than 325 pages long, further demonstrating the complexity of this issue. The decision determined that some portions of the ICWA are constitutional and, as such, should be upheld. However, other parts (like the regulations put into effect by the federal government’s Bureau of Indian Affairs) were found to violate the “anticommandeering” policy of the Constitution “because it forces states, their child welfare agencies, and their courts to act in a certain way.”6

Following this most recent decision, the parties have appealed to the Supreme Court in the hope that the Court will review the ICWA ruling and decide its overall constitutionality. The Court will look over the details, decide if it wants to review the case, and, if so, which parts of the issue it wishes to review. The Court is expected to announce whether it will take the case sometime in December 2021 or January 2022.7 Up to this point, the Court has received three amicus (friend of the court) briefs from 180 tribal nations, 35 Native organizations, 25 states and the District of Columbia, Casey Family Programs, and ten child welfare and adoption organizations urging the Court to review and uphold the ICWA.8 These briefs are essentially supportive statements by parties not involved in the case to demonstrate that a decision one way or the other will impact parties outside of the present case.9

What Are Some Arguments For and Against Upholding the ICWA?

Those opposed to the ICWA believe that discrimination against non-Native families in the placement of children goes against the Constitution. They argue that the law harms the very children it is meant to protect, as it prevents them from being placed in permanent homes and keeps them trapped in the foster care system. Opponents of the ICWA maintain that the best interests of each individual child should be the only thing considered when it comes to their placement. Their status as Native Americans should have nothing to do with this process.

Those who support the ICWA believe the law protects Native children after years of intentional removal, separation, and displacement. They believe that Native status is a political distinction rather than a racial one.10 Supporters also argue that this is an issue much bigger than the ICWA itself. For example, the Cherokee Nation, the largest tribal nation in the country, tweeted about the issue in March 2019, stating, “If #ICWA opponents in Brackeen v. Bernhardt are successful, it will potentially impact the sovereignty of every tribe, because the plaintiffs view tribes as racial entities, not sovereign governments. #ProudtoProtectICWA #ICWAFact.”11

Discussion Questions

  1. What might be some arguments in support of the ICWA? What might be some arguments in opposition?
  2. What do you think about this case? Do you believe that the ICWA should be upheld? Why or why not?
  3. What do you think could be some potential consequences if the ICWA is found to be unconstitutional and overturned? What about possible results if it is upheld?
  4. How does this controversy connect to other issues you have heard about in the news? In history?
  5. If the Supreme Court reviews this case, how do you think it will rule? Why do you think so?

Other Resources

READ the Fifth Circuit’s decision.

READ more about the case, including amicus briefs.

As always, we encourage you to join the discussion with your comments or questions below!



Featured Image Credit: Native American Rights Fund
[2] Native American Rights Fund:; Fifth Circuit Decision in Brackeen v. Haaland:
[3] Native American Rights Fund:
[4] SCOTUSBlog:
[5] Cornell Law School Legal Information Institute
[6] Indianz:; Indianz:
[7] National Indian Child Welfare Fund:
[8] Native American Rights Fund:
[9] Smith Gambrell Russell Law:
[10] Native American Rights Fund:
[11] Cherokee Nation Twitter Feed:[13] Native Times: