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A 5-0 decision by the South Dakota Supreme Court says a man who admitted to killing his wife and is serving a life sentence in prison did not have his rights under a federal Indian adoption law violated when a Brookings judge awarded custody of his child to the slain mother's brother and sister-in-law.

"A child's mother was killed by the child's father while the child was in the custody and care of the mother's brother and sister-in-law," opens Thursday's decision, penned by Justice Steven Zinter, who passed away in October.

In March 2017, Irving D. Jumping Eagle, an enrolled member of the Oglala Sioux Tribe, admitted to killing his wife, Alicia Jumping Eagle, and later pleaded guilty to manslaughter. The couple's two-year-old child was staying with the child's maternal uncle and his wife, Lloyd and Katie Warren of Baltic, the weekend she died. Three days later, a circuit judge awarded temporary guardianship to the Warrens, who are not Native Americans.

In June when the Warrens petitioned for permanent guardianship, Irving argued that his sister, Dr. Sara Jumping Eagle, an enrolled member of the Oglala Sioux Tribe, should serve as the child's guardian.

However, Judge Gregory Stoltenburg in the 3rd Judicial Circuit in Brookings argued that "Irving's criminal act caused the breakup of the family" and the father ceded custody rights of the child under the Indian Child Welfare Act, a federal law passed in 1978 to protect against the government breaking up Indian families.

In Thursday's court ruling, the state supreme court agreed with the lower court in awarding custody to the Warrens.

"In determining the suitability of a proposed guardian under both ICWA and the Guardianship Act, the circuit court must ultimately consider the child's best interests," Zinter wrote, referencing both ICWA and the South Dakota Guardianship and Conservatorship Act, a 1993 state law that provides the basis for a circuit court to decide custody cases.

The Warrens, similar to Dr. Jumping Eagle, are direct relatives of the child and accepted under ICWA's "first preference" provision. Moreover, Justice Zinter continued, while the Warrens had yet to take "direct action" to understand Lakota culture or heritage — a concern for ICWA — they had the "ability and willingness to address the child's Indian culture and heritage." 

Finally, the court noted, Dr. Jumping Eagle never petitioned for guardianship of her brother's child.

"Considering all the evidence in the record, we cannot say the circuit court erred or abused its discretion in granting the guardianship to the child's maternal aunt and uncle," Zinter wrote.

The legal fate of ICWA has come under question in a recent federal court decision in Texas, where the judge struck down the law as a "race-based" statute. Prior to the passage of ICWA, it is estimated that over a quarter of all Indian children were forcibly removed from their native homes and families to mostly white or non-Indian residences.

Last week, the U.S. 5th Circuit Court of Appeals ordered a stay on the Texas judge's ruling, meaning for the time being ICWA and its preferences for Native families in adopting enrolled Native children whose Native parents have lost custody is the law of the land in all 50 states.

Legal experts say that case, Brackeen v. Zinke, may end up going all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court.

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Education reporter