Sandy White Hawk: 'Let them go. Someday they'll come back'

It is October 10, 2013. I just listened to Dusten Brown’s press conference. Listening to his voice reminded me of accounts I heard from elders in tribal communities I have traveled to.

Dusten, with his grief stricken heart, has let his baby go for her sake, not for his own. He didn’t hand her to the non-Indian adoptive couple because they are better parents. He did it because he didn’t want her to be affected by all the fighting.

In the late 1890s, we survived massacres, removal from our homelands, disease and were forced into prison camps that were to become what we now know as reservations. Our ancestors had one resource left to secure our future. That resource held the hope that despite the dismal circumstances, there was promise that our language, songs and ceremonies would remain.

That resource was their children. These children being born into the harsh prison camp settings held within them the promise that we were not defeated that we, Indian people, were going to continue on.

The following oral history was told to me by Chris Leith in 2000. In my travels I have heard other elders share the same account of how child removal began in the prison camps:
“When they started taking children to boarding school the Indian agent came to the camps to get the children. They forcibly removed them from their loving extended family to far away boarding schools, government schools, orphanages and even farmed some out for slave labor to pioneer farmers. When the parents fought to hang on to their children refusing to let go, the agents shot the parents and the children on the spot. Watching this, grandparents who loved their children so much wanted them to live so they said, “Let them go. Someday they will come back.”

So it was with broken, grief stricken hearts these brave parents let their children go with the strangers. Some of these children carried the last of any family resemblance of a relative who had died in massacres or the harsh conditions of the prison camp.

Grandparents are wise. They knew if these children could at least live, our future would be secure. It was through their love for their grandchildren that the future was secured. It was through our songs and prayers they sent in the wind that brought grandchildren home. It was those songs and ceremonies that kept the grandchildren from dying or committing suicide as many a hopeless separated one has done.

We all sat in the virtual camp and watched helplessly as Veronica was forcibly removed by the law. Today, October 10, 2013, we listened to her father Dusten Brown express a merciful request so cease and desist the legal battle. His eyes looked dark with the trauma of having to let his little girl, his “princess” go.

Grief gripped his throat making it almost impossible to speak. We wept with him; whispered prayers for his strength wishing we could stop it all. There were no Indian agents, no guns and no trains to boarding school.

The Indian agents have been replaced by unscrupulous, unregulated adoption agencies and lawyers. The guns are replaced by twisted use of the law and manipulation of adoption workers targeting birth mothers in duress. The trains are replaced by a court system used to manipulate the law to appease adopters who want to erase the histories of where the children come from. Boarding schools are now replaced by adoptive homes. Some boarding school experiences were not horrendous; some adoptive families are kind and loving.

It doesn’t matter. Separation is just as painful when you are loved. Love does not replace the connection needed to know who you are. Veronica will be loved and told that it is enough. That they “fought” for her that this was her spiritual destiny that she was prayed for.

Indian people have prayers too. We are told to pray sincerely from our heart not our head; to ask for health and happiness for everyone. We ask for help; we don’t tell the Creator what to do.

Our beloved elder Chris Leith, was spiritual advisor to the National Indian Child Welfare Board, used to tell us when we were feeling the loss in battles over Indian children to remember: “There is state law, federal law and then there is God’s law.” I have to believe this story is not over.

“He let her go, someday she’ll come back”

Sandra White Hawk is a Sicangu Lakota adoptee from the Rosebud Reservation, South Dakota. Sandra is the founder and Director of First Nations Repatriation Institute (formerly First Nations Orphan Association). First Nations Repatriation Institute is the first organization of its kind whose goal it is to create a resource for First Nations people impacted by adoption or foster care to return home, reconnect, and reclaim their identity. The Institute also serves as a resource to enhance the knowledge and skills of practitioners who serve First Nations people. She can be reached at sandywhitehawk@gmail.com

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