In This Episode
While we wait to see whether the Supreme Court takes the case, we attend a ceremony run by a program that helps Native adoptees reconnect with their tribes.
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Rebecca Nagle: Just a note before we get started, the stories we’re sharing this season, touch on different kinds of trauma. Please take care of yourself while you listen.
Sandy White Hawk: I was removed during that deep systematic removal where churches were involved, social workers.
Rebecca Nagle, narrating: You may remember Sandy White Hawk from earlier this season. She was removed from her family and tribe before Congress passed the Indian Child Welfare Act. As an adult, Sandy struggled with addiction. On her path to sobriety. She got counseling and one day her counselor said something that shook her.
Sandy White Hawk: You’ve really faced all the abuse. You’ve done really good work. And, you know, you’re on your way to all the healing from the violations that you had. But there’s one thing you don’t know. She goes, you don’t know what it means to be a woman of color, but that’s who you are. And I was like, wow, I never, ever thought of myself as a woman of color. I certainly was treated like one, but I didn’t know what it meant for me to be able to say it. And that’s what spurred my desire to go home and find my relatives.
Rebecca Nagle, narrating: Two months later, Sandy got the chance.
Sandy White Hawk: My friend had to go to Colorado Springs for a training and she said, You want to go to Colorado Springs? I go, could we go via Rosebud, South Dakota? Everything about that trip was a miracle.
Rebecca Nagle, narrating: Sandy didn’t have much of a plan. Her mom had passed away, but she had the names of some of her siblings. What she didn’t have was a phone number or an address or any contact information.
Sandy White Hawk: So we drove on to the reservation and didn’t know really where to go. Someone finally told me to go to the hospital. This man came into the lobby and asked if he could help me and I told him my story. And he goes, Well, I know your brother. And I went, Oh, wow, you’re kidding. And I said, geez, do I look like him? And he goes, Yes, you do it through the smile. And I was like, Oh, my God.
Rebecca Nagle, narrating: That man made a few phone calls. The people he called, called other people. And as Sandy sat and waited, a little phone tree tracked down her family.
Sandy White Hawk: And we drove to a softball park where there was a memorial softball game going on for one of my relatives. And we get to out of the car and um, he says, there’s your uncles over there.
Rebecca Nagle, narrating: It was the first time Sandy had seen her family since she was a toddler. She was 35.
Sandy White Hawk: He went up to my uncle and talked to him in Lakota first and then turned in and said, here she is. He said that in English. And he just looked at me and he smiled so big.
Rebecca Nagle, narrating: Sandy spent the whole afternoon at the softball game.
Sandy White Hawk: Those kinds of moments, you know, just take years off your spirit, that’s heavy of my adoptive mom telling me they didn’t want you, they didn’t want you at all, that’s why you’re here with me, I wanted you. They didn’t want you, they threw you away. I just remember, we were visiting at one point. I just we sat there for the afternoon and he said, you know, your mother loved you, she was a good woman, but, you know, she . . . He didn’t have a word. And I just said, she struggled? And he goes, yeah, yeah, she struggled some but she loved you.
Rebecca Nagle, narrating: You’re listening to This Land, a podcast about the present day struggle for Native rights. From Crooked Media, I’m your host, Rebecca Nagle [ᎪᎯᏂ ᏓᏆᏙᎠ. ᏣᎳᎩ ᎠᏰᎵ ᎨᎳ.] citizen of Cherokee Nation. This season, we’re following how a string of custody battles over Native children turned into a federal lawsuit, threatening everything from tribal sovereignty to civil rights. I’ve spent four years investigating and reporting on the big federal lawsuit, Brackeen v. Haaland. Our team uncovered a web of special interests, people who are attacking the Indian Child Welfare Act to prop up the adoption industry, undermine tribal sovereignty, and build conservative power. And you might think that’s the center of the case, but it’s not. At the center are Native American families. That’s who will be most impacted by the final outcome. So we’re spending this episode with their stories.
Rebecca Nagle: At the heart of the Brackeen’s case are four Native American children, a Pueblo child, an Ojibwe child, a Navajo child, and a child who is Navajo and Cherokee—or in their own languages Tiqua, Ojibwe, Dine and Tsalagi. All but one of these children is growing up in a white home. And the future of one toddler, Yoselyn, still hangs in the balance. Since Texas courts granted the Brackeens custody of Antonio and Yoselyn, they’ve taken the kids to Hawaii, the beach in Florida, and even on a cruise. But there was one family trip Jennifer Brackeen did not look forward to, Yoselyn’s court-ordered visit to Navajo Nation.
[actor as Jennifer Brackeen] To say I’ve been dreading this since it was announced would be an understatement. I wouldn’t say it was fun and I’m not excited about doing it again, which we have to. But we made the most of it and tried to make memories as a family.
Rebecca Nagle: This is from Jennifer’s blog read by an actor on the blog. Jennifer calls Yoselyn Babycakes.
[actor as Jennifer Brackeen] Babycakes started her week with some bio family and we decided to do some hiking. It was pretty hot and we underestimated our water needs, which is bad, bad, bad. Lesson learned.
Rebecca Nagle: Yoselyn wasn’t on the hike because she was with her family as mandated by the court. But Antonio was.
[actor as Jennifer Brackeen] He was so tough and loved climbing on everything and didn’t have to be carried much until the end, and the lack of water. Face-palm. He definitely fits right in with our active crew.
Rebecca Nagle: Antonio was on Navajo Nation where his siblings, aunts, uncles and cousins live. And instead of spending the day with his Navajo family, the Brackeens took him hiking. When Jennifer decided to become a foster parent, she blogged about why it was a sacrifice. As she fought for custody of Antonio and then Yoselyn, she still wrote about it as a sacrifice.
[actor as Jennifer Brackeen] No, we didn’t really want to adopt again. We didn’t want four kids. We didn’t want to start over again. We just didn’t.
Rebecca Nagle: According to the blog, adopting Yoselyn wasn’t what Jennifer wanted to do. It was what God wanted her to do.
[actor as Jennifer Brackeen] When we started fostering, it was a decision to say yes to whatever God was asking us to do, with his help, of course. And we knew this was what God wanted us to do. So even though our selfish wants made the decision hard, we wanted to go forward.
Rebecca Nagle: The Brackeen say they’re fighting ICWA because the law doesn’t look out for the best interest of the child. But it’s hard to tell what best interest the Brackeens are looking out for because they keep contradicting themselves. Since the Brackeens became foster parents, three children have been placed in their home. They asked CPS to take the first foster child back after five months because the child was difficult. They fought to adopt their second foster child, Antonio, because they said moving him would be disruptive. And then they fought for custody of Yoselyn, Antonio’s little sister, a child they hadn’t fostered. She wasn’t living in their home. And two other families wanted to adopt her: the foster family, who raised her for the first ten months of her life, and a blood relative, her great aunt. But the Brackeens wanted custody because they had adopted Yoselyn’s brother.
[actor as Jennifer Brackeen] We wanted her to grow up with her brother and vice versa. We wanted them to have each other for support and for all the things that only the two of them share.
Rebecca Nagle: So what is the best interest of the child? It can’t be attachment and stability because they’ve asked for foster children to be moved. And it can’t be that children should stay with family, with people who look like them and share things only biological family can share, because then they wouldn’t be fighting Yoselyn’s blood relative, and they wouldn’t be fighting the Indian Child Welfare Act. We’re still waiting to find out whether or not the Supreme Court will hear the case, but there’s good reason to assume they will. And whatever they decide, it will have an enormous impact. The Supreme Court can help Native communities heal from generations of family separation, or it can set the stage for more generations to be taken. What that means for people like Sandy, after the break.
Rebecca Nagle, narrating: On one of Sandy’s trips back to Rosebud, she was at the tribe’s big annual event, the Rosebud Fair.
Sandy White Hawk: So I was just sitting at the powwow and I was visiting with this elder that my brother had introduced me to and it came close to the end of the afternoon session. And I teased her, I said, oh, Clara. I said, I’ll go gets us soup.
Rebecca Nagle, narrating: At the end of the afternoon session, a big meal is served. Everyone gets to eat but protocol says that elders go first.
Sandy White Hawk: And I teased her and I said I love waiting on elders because I can sneak me a plate, too. But the announcer said, before we break for supper, we’re going to have a special.
Rebecca Nagle, narrating: The special was a time in the Powwow used to honor a Korean War veteran. The veteran and his family were called out to the center of the arena. As the honor song started, he slowly made his way around the circle.
Sandy White Hawk: And the song that was being sung just sounded so beautiful. And I asked Clara, I said, What is this song? And she said, This is an old veterans song. And she was telling me, translating the words and it was so beautiful. It was just, did something to my heart. When the honor beats hit, everyone raised their hands and I asked her, why do they do that here? And those are the kinds of questions adoptees will have. And you feel real pesty when you’re wanting to ask because, you know it means something. And she said, well, when they’re raising their hands like that, we’re thinking about those veterans who gave their life for us.
Rebecca Nagle, narrating: As each round of honor beat started, Clara explained to Sandy what they meant.
Sandy White Hawk: And eventually she got to where she said, and now we’re thinking of those veterans who are making their way home, coming back to our communities after their service. And we’re saying, welcome back, we’re glad you’re home, we’re glad you’re here. And that’s when it hit me—I hadn’t even been thinking about adoptees—but that’s when it hit me that I had never heard a song for adoptees in a way of doing it in the community as this was being done through this special.
Rebecca Nagle, narrating: Adoptees like Sandy were also making their way back home, through trauma and loss that impacted the whole community. But Sandy had never seen that acknowledged publicly, at least not like this. As the honor song went on, other veterans were called out to the arena. Sandy, being a veteran, stood up to go.
Sandy White Hawk: And as I turned to get myself ready to walk down the bleachers and go out into the arena, I was looking at that couple and the way sun was shining and the way the drum sounded and the way everyone looked in that arena, it just seemed like nothing bad had ever happened to any of us. Just for that moment.
Rebecca Nagle, narrating: Sandy couldn’t shake the powerful feeling she had that day,
Sandy White Hawk: so I kept thinking about that, that I had never heard a song welcoming our relatives back who had been taken away through adoption and foster care. And I didn’t tell anybody because I was kind of thought I was being presumptuous and who am I to be thinking things like that. I don’t know nothing.
Rebecca Nagle, narrating: But again, the right people were put in Sandy’s path. At an event in Wisconsin, sandy met an elder named Chris Leeth. Leeth was a citizen of the Prairie Island Indian Community and the spiritual adviser to the National Indian Child Welfare Association. One morning they sat across from each other at breakfast and Sandy just told him what she was thinking.
Sandy White Hawk: And I said, I’ve been around a while now. Not, you know, been to a lot of the gatherings and I’ve never heard anybody talk about it publicly, never heard any welcome. And it would help everyone. I said, wouldn’t it help the community? Wouldn’t it help the relatives who lost us? And so when I was sharing that with him, I realized, I started thinking, oh, goodness, I’m probably overstepping my boundaries here because he is an elder and he has, if this was supposed to happen, he would have known. He would have done something already. I almost wanted to take the words back and put them in my mouth and just act like it didn’t happen. But then when I got to the part where I said, and there is no song. You know, and I know there’s a song for everything, and that we make a song if there isn’t one. And that’s when he just stopped eating, put his fork down, and he said, you know, you’re right, you’re right. There should be a song. I’ll make sure there’s a song.
Rebecca Nagle, narrating: Chris Leeth reached out to an Oglala Lakota songwriter named Jerry Dearly. And Dearly wrote the song, an honor song for adoptees, a song to welcome them home. Soon communities started requesting the song, and that’s when Sandy’s work really began. She started meeting other adoptees and creating spaces for them to heal together.
Sandy White Hawk: When you think how many people have been impacted by child removal it’s daunting at times. So I don’t think there’s a family, Indian family that doesn’t have a story of some relative whose child was in foster care, or adopted out. Being an adoptee myself and the experiences I went through as I met other adoptees, I saw that our experiences were similar. And I felt bad because quite a few of the adoptees I met had not been able to make connection. And they had that same sense of loss. You could just see it in their eyes, they felt so separated and so far away from anything Native.
Rebecca Nagle, narrating: That Gibson Dunn lawyer, Matthew McGill, the adoption attorney, Mark Fiddler, and even the Brackeens agree that what happened to Sandy and her generation is tragic, but they say that tragedy is in the past and today the Indian Child Welfare Act is no longer needed. But the systemic removal of Native children is still happening, at rates similar to the 1970s. And behind those shocking statistics, are adoptees and their families. Michelle Bender, citizen of Seminole Nation of Oklahoma, was adopted in 1979, right after ICWA was passed.
Michele Bender: Throughout my entire life, I struggled with, I had a severe identity crisis because I wasn’t white, but I lived in the white world.
Rebecca Nagle: Shana King, citizen of Mandan, Hidatsa and Arikara Nation, was placed in foster care in 1988.
Shana King: The day that I entered foster care completely shut that off. I never was able to attend another powwow. I never was able to see family. I didn’t have any relationship with the sisters that I have growing up. There was this like severe knife that just cut off that part of my life.
Rebecca Nagle: Sunny Red Bear, citizen of the Cheyenne River Sioux Tribe was adopted by a white couple in the early 1990s.
Sunny Red Bear: We grew up well off, you know, so we would go on a lot of trips, and we go to like Disneyland and like fancy hotel rooms and things like that, you know? And literally, me and my brother would be like the only brown people everywhere we went. Dad would say things like, wow, isn’t this hotel so beautiful? Like everywhere he went, he always had to remind us how blessed we were and you never heard him say that to his other children. But it’s almost like two lost children trying to find their way out of these woods. I have often times like thought to myself if, if I had had support culturally and spiritually, emotionally and just like on who I was, where I came from, who, like, who would I be today?
Rebecca Nagle: More after the break.
Rebecca Nagle: For a long time, the main question I wanted to answer was why? Why are all these people attacking ICWA? Was it self-interest? Simply put, money and power? We found economic incentives with direct ties to the lawyers bringing these cases and a paper trail laying out how the attack on ICWA is part of a bigger agenda to build conservative power. Which means these children, these toddlers, are just tools. They’re just a means to an end. But we also found evidence that some ICWA opponents believe they’re helping and are fighting ICWA for personal or ideological reasons, which is almost worse, because it means a handful of non-Native people can decide what they think is best for Native children, without evidence, and in opposition to almost every tribe in the United States. But they have enough money and power to take their case all the way to the Supreme Court. In our reporting, we found evidence of both greed and charity. It surprised me, but it shouldn’t have because we’ve lived this cycle before. Where a combination of white greed and white charity determined what was best for Native children. And that’s how we got boarding schools, the Indian adoption project, and social workers snatching children from their yards. For generations, in the attack on Indigenous rights, Native children have been the tip of the spear. As a country, we barely know that history, let alone have learned from it. So why would this time be different? Years after Sandy saw that honor song for the Korean War veteran, she was back at the same arena for the Rosebud Fair. But this time, Sandy was the one hosting the special.
[Ceremony MC] Ladies and gentlemen, we have a ceremony, welcome home ceremony.
Rebecca Nagle, narrating: An honoring for relatives who had been adopted out or placed in foster care.
[Ceremony MC] OK, adoptees. Adoptees. Sandy! Sandy! [words in Lakota]
Rebecca Nagle, narrating: When Sandy was called into the arena, the sky was pitch black. A few thousand people were packed into the arbors or spread out in lawn chairs. The sun had slipped below the land, but the arena was bright. Old friends and family ran into each other. Children played, and Sandy made her way to the announcer tand, took the microphone and turned to address the crowd.
Sandy White Hawk at the ceremony: Good evening, friends and relatives. My heart is just jumping and leaping inside. I’m trying to calm myself so that makes sense. Many people think that being in the white world has a lot of opportunities and that we lived a good life. Some had opportunity, some had some stability. But what we didn’t have is that identity. Knowing who we are, knowing where we come from. Some of us had horrible experiences. So not only were we not in the safety of the circle of our people, we were out there, going through a combat of sorts. And then eventually trying to make our way home. We were that generation yet to come when our ancestors prayed for us. They wanted us to know who we are. They prayed that we would be able to make our way back. So we’re not, as adoptees, we’re not looking to be pitied. We’re not looking, we’re not victims. We’re your relatives who have been stolen and we made our path back. So for those of my relatives who are out here, this song is for you. This healing, we pray, will go into that place in your heart for no words go, where no words to be expressed.
Rebecca Nagle, narrating: As relatives who had been adopted out or placed in foster care walked in a slow circle around the arena. The crowd stood up. People got up from their bench or out of their lawn chair, removed their hats, and stood facing the adoptees.
Rebecca Nagle, narrating: At the end of the song, the adoptees stood in the middle of the arena. A long line formed, a line of people who came up to shake their hands. People that they knew, people that they had never met, children that were carried on the hips of their mothers and older ones led by hand. Dancers in their full regalia and spectators wearing T-shirts. It took a while, but one by one, the crowd welcomed them home.
Rebecca Nagle: This is the last episode of Season 2 of This Land. Thank you so much for listening. We will be continuing to report on the Brackeen’s case as it goes to the Supreme Court. And I want to say a special thanks to all of the adoptees and families who trusted us with their stories. [speaks Cherokee]
Speaker 5 Oh, well,
Rebecca Nagle: This Land is reported, written and hosted by me, Rebecca Nagle [speaks in Cherokee] citizen of Cherokee Nation. Additional reporting this season from Maddie Stone, Martha Troian, citizen of Obishikokaang Lac Sul First Nation and Amy Westervelt. From Crooked Media, our executive producers are Jon Favreau, Sarah Geismer, Lyra Smith, and Katie Long with special thanks to Alison Falzetta. From Critical Frequency, our managing producer is Amy Westervelt. Our senior producer is Sarah Ventre, and our story editor is Rekha Murthy. Additional editing for Martha Troian and Pauly Denetclaw, who is Dine. Sound design by Lyra Smith, Marc Bush, and Charlotte Landes. Original score composed by Jarod Tate, citizen of Chickasaw Nation. Our outro song is an honor song for adoptees, written and sung by Jerry Dearly, who is Oglala Lakota. Our fact checker is Wudan Yan. Our First Amendment attorney is James Wheaten, founder of the First Amendment Project. Podcast art by Keli Gonzalez, citizen of Cherokee Nation. Additional reporting from producer Allison Herrera, who is Xolon Salinan. Additional thanks for this episode to Drew Nicholas and the crew behind the documentary “Blood Memory.” You can find it online at BloodMemory dot com.
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