The Taking of Native Children Throughout History

Veronica Brown, photo courtesy of Native News Network

Veronica Brown, photo courtesy of Native News Network

I have been having so much thoughts about Veronica Brown, it has been unsettling. With the adoptive couple now suing the biological father for half a million dollars on top of taking his daughter away from him. Adding insult to injury. My mom said it goes to show, the government still doesn’t care about us. It is as if the ICWA laws are only set in place to keep us quiet, but really they don’t mean anything. Or maybe tribes and people in each tribe also have to heavily regulate ICWA to make sure the laws are followed. Although, it should be vice versa. I know if the ICWA laws were followed back when my brother was placed in foster care, he would not have been lost for the 21 years he was.

Although, Veronica Brown wasn’t the first Native child taken from her family and placed in the care of Non-Natives, her case brought national attention to the case. Thanks in part to her adopted parents going on the Dr. Phil show and along with Dr. Phil, called the Indian Child Welfare Act “racist.” Maybe her case opened up a new door, so that maybe people can understand why these laws were put in place, instead of hating the laws and hating us for having these laws. To adopt any child the state regulates the adoption unless it is a Native child, then federal laws have to be followed.

In the 1860’s, before the civil war, 48 day schools were set up near reservations to assimilate Indian children so that they “may grow up white.” This was decided when the government realized they could not “kill off the Indians.” Once they realized the parents were still teaching children their language, culture, and belief systems at home, they came up with a new experiment: reservation boarding schools. They had thought if the parents were away from the children, they would learn all week while living at the school to be more like the white man. However, most of the parents moved their tipis closer to the schools.

Boarding School on the Pine Ridge Reservation

Boarding School on the Pine Ridge Reservation

In 1879, Carlisle Boarding School was founded by Captain Richard Henry Pratt.
According to Wikipedia; Pratt’s mission at Carlisle was based on the “annihilation of the Indian and his salvation as an American citizen,” the former being a prerequisite of the latter. His often-quoted solution, “Kill the Indian in him, and save the man,” provided the philosophical foundation of his program.

Here, young children were taught to hate being Indian. They all had their long hair cut off upon arrival and were beaten for speaking their own language. They were told to even “Think in English.” (I can’t imagine that, to think how beautiful that must be to think in your own language. I would love to be back at that point someday.) Children were taken from their parents almost year round, often not allowed letters from home, and thrown into a military style of life. They were taken from age 4 to 18. They spent everyday waking to a bugle at 5:45am and in bed by 9:00am. Their days were so packed with activities and school, they were only given one hour of free time per day. Which, by today’s standards is worse than prison. Often children were taken by force from their homes, so tiny handcuffs were made for this reason.

Children's handcuffs from the Haskell Indian Nations University's Cultural Center and Museum.  Photo courtesy of Indian Country Today Media Network.

Children’s handcuffs from the Haskell Indian Nations University’s Cultural Center and Museum. Photo courtesy of Indian Country Today Media Network.

Carlisle Indian School closed in 1918 but not before over 175 were buried on the grounds that died from tuberculosis. Those who died while trying to escape or from other illnesses bodies were sent home to the families. 26 boarding schools opened by the Bureau of Indian Affairs were opened starting in 1902 and modeled after Carlisle, as well as over 450 Christian missionary boarding schools. All with the intentions of civilizing Indians while erasing who they are by cutting hair, physical, sexual, emotional abuse, and renaming them. Carlisle Indian School graduated less than 8% of its over 12,000 students, twice that amount tried to and/or escaped.

During the time of Carlisle’s existence a little Native girl was taken from her people. Well sort of, she was found under her mother’s frozen body at the Wounded Knee massacre. She had survived under her mother for four days before they found her while gathering the corpses to be buried in a mass grave. A general from the National Guard in Nebraska having made their way to Wounded Knee to sightsee wanted the baby. He lied and said he was a Seneca Indian. It took two weeks for the adoption but he took the baby girl home to his wife. They named her Lost Bird. Or Zintkala Nuni. She was called Zintka.

Lost Bird and her adopter father, General Colby. photo courtesy of

Lost Bird and her adopter father, General Colby.
photo courtesy of

She lived a turbulent life, often being a showpiece or dinner conversation while her adopted father served as Assistant Attorney General in Washington, DC. The couple split when he ran off with Lost Bird’s nanny and she lived in poverty with her mother. She was sent to boarding schools, suffered abuse, racism from her adopted relatives. She was sent to live with her adopted father at the age of 17, where she became pregnant and was sent to live in a reformatory. Her baby was still born and she remained there for a year.

Her short life after that included: poverty, working for the Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show, a marriage, two childbirths-one of which died and one she gave up for adoption, acting career, and returning to South Dakota several times in search of what was missing her whole life.

Her identity.

Lost Bird died in on Valentines Day in 1919 of an influenza epidemic. Her remains were returned to Wounded Knee in 1991.


There have been many programs since the resulted in the removal of Native children and erasing their identity. Some of these programs were under the Bureau of Indian Affairs called the “relocation program.” Others were placement programs ran by the Mormon church taking Native children from their homes and placing them with Mormon families in other states. This happened up until the 1980s.

And there is foster care. The ever dreaded foster care. States like South Dakota get bonus money from the federal government from every child they place for adoption. It is a clear money maker for the Department of Social Services, being that South Dakota takes 742 Native children a year from their homes.

This number is even higher than California, who considers their numbers disproportionally high at 439 Native children, while Natives make up 1.7% of the population of children for that state. And also disproportionally high for South Dakota whose population is 37 million less than California. There is a shortage of Native foster homes and the ones that are there are not being utilized. Despite the 1978 ICWA laws set into place to protect our children it is failing. The programs are not being regulated by the tribes.

Why, people wonder, why are so many Native children placed n foster care? Do you ever think that maybe, just maybe all those years of removing children from their homes and taking away that family structure. Disconnecting them from all that they know for hundreds of years is still having an effect today? They were not taught parenting skills at the boarding schools, they were beaten into being white and now our people are judged by the white government as unfit to be parents. Because the white government/Christianity taught them that way. Their white ways.

What is happening to our children and has been happening to our children are acts of genocide. According to a legal definition that is found in the 1948 United Nations Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide (CPPCG). Article 2 of this convention defines genocide as “any of the following acts committed with intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious group, as such: killing members of the group; causing serious bodily or mental harm to members of the group; deliberately inflicting on the group conditions of life, calculated to bring about its physical destruction in whole or in part; imposing measures intended to prevent births within the group; [and] forcibly transferring children of the group to another group. Genocide against our children must end.

We have to go back to our ways. Because the ways that were beaten into our grandparents and great grandparents have historically traumatized generation after generation. The disconnections boarding schools taught, foster homes taught have passed through to us. Trying to be white did not work for us. We have to go back to who we are also, just as the tens of thousands of adoptees seek. We have to remember that our children are sacred and always were and treat them as such.

I pray for Dusten Brown and the day he is with his daughter again. I pray for Veronica Brown to be strong because her people are waiting for her. I pray for a change in the laws that exist that still do not protect our children. I pray for a day when all the little souls out there lost in a world that is not theirs can find their way back to who they are. I have been fortunate enough to come to know my brother after he was lost for 21 years and there is no feeling like reconnecting with your roots.


21 thoughts on “The Taking of Native Children Throughout History

  1. Many of the children taken in the 50’s and 60’s have no way to trace their origins. Attempts to reconnect with our culture have been met with contempt by that same culture. We are left with a cultural schizophrenia: unwelcome in the white world and rebuffed by the native world. Veronica will always know where she came from. She is a lucky child to have family who want her.

  2. this child was legally given up by her birth mother. no govt came and ripped her away from a functioning culture or a caring father. he was not there. Is the father going to teach her the old ways? Does the father know the old ways?

    • In essence she was ripped by the government. Learn the truth, read the facts, the adoption was illegal and by “old ways” I mean quit being uncaring as your comment. Children are sacred, not pawns. Old ways to us means to treat our children better than they ways your government taught us how to treat them.

    • Yes he knows the old ways. He was not there because he was not allowed to be there. Veronica was hidden from him. This was stated by the South Carolina courts when they gave her to him 21 months ago.

    • Excuse me, but the government *was* complicit in Veronica being removed from her father, yes. If they had left it at the original South Carolina family court decision, she’d still be with him now.

      Her father is the one giving her her Native ancestry. He’s Cherokee. Yes, they still learn what old ways they can. They even have a community center (at least one) that teaches the kids… first thing when he’d originally taken custody of her, she started attending dance classes at that center. They said she caught right on, like she’d been stomp-dancing her whole life.

      That is what she was taken away from. And you know something? It matters, but it doesn’t as much as her right to be with her biological family if they are not abusing her, and hers wasn’t. Hers wanted her, at least her dad’s side did. And now she’s lost them.

  3. I should mention that I have grandchildren eligible for the roles. I also believe the Native Americans have been used and abused by the US government from the first day to the present. Taking this little girl away from the adoptive family who raised her, based on her biracial status is probably a poor idea for the child, even if it is considered a triumph for the tribes.

    • You have Native grandchildren?
      So instead of being a triumph for the tribes, it is a victory for the government and white people, right? She was taken illegally from her REAL father.

    • They wouldn’t have adopted her if they had played by the rules. Signs are strong that they knew from day one she would be Cherokee (ancestor on the Dawes Rolls, father and grandparents already enrolled), and they took her anyway. They lied about her ethnicity on the paperwork and her mother was also complicit in the lies.

      And they knew by the time she was four months old that her father wanted her. He didn’t even bring her tribal status into it in the beginning. Simply stated that he had never consented to the adoption (which is the truth–the piece of paper he signed was not a relinquishment form), and the mother admitted in South Carolina court that she had not told him of her wish to relinquish. And even without the tribal angle, it is not ethical to allow biological strangers to adopt a child without checking with the extended family first to make sure no one will take the child. If they had done that much they’d have found that she was very much wanted by both her father and her paternal grandparents since *before* she was born.

      You need to read up on this because it’s obvious you haven’t. And this country is in desperate need of adoption reform–most of all for Natives, but for everyone else too.

  4. Honestly Dana, I can’t bring myself to even fully comment on this. The outright theft of Native children by non-Natives in this country is too near and dear to my heart. Too many family members beaten, raped, and enslaved by non-Native adoptive parents. Too many of those same family members beaten until they developed a life long shame of being Native. Too many wrongs committed by non-Natives against Native children prior to the enactment of the Indian Child Welfare Act. Veronica Brown needs to be with her father, plain and simple. Anyone who disagrees is quite simply supporting the ongoing genocide against our people. Yes, it is a genocide. Under federal law, any Native child adopted to non-Natives is no longer considered Native. I know this personally, because out of the 14 children my grandparents had, when both had passed away only 5 were considered Native, so as to inherit the land assignments given to our family during the McCumber Treaty of 1893. Of those 14 kids, the 9 not considered were the same 9 that were adopted out to non-Natives. This act of no longer considering these 9 children Native, is in fact defined as an act of genocide, under the official definition of genocide set down during the Nuremberg Conventions following the end of WWII, when everyone was trying to figure out how exactly and what exactly to charge the Nazi regime with. I for one refuse to allow anyone to continue trying to destroy the existence of my people. Veronica Brown needs to be rightfully returned to her father.

    • Tommy, Thank you, I am always here when you need to talk, remember that. What some white people do not understand is that this STILL affects us today what our people went through. But maybe they do not feel as deep as we do, maybe they do not care about their whole families. Almost all of us have these memories, even if they are not ours. Even if they are cousins, they are close to our heart, The dominant culture in this country does not get that, Look at Veronica, she is going from having a sister, mom, dad, grandparents and many cousins and aunts and uncles to having her adopted parents and a grandfather in New York. This was not about having a family it was about winning, and she will have to search someday for who she is. Email me if you ever need to.

      • No, you’re right. We have been socialized to not care about our families. Stick your kids in daycare even if you don’t need to, stick your parents in a nursing home, move far away from your relatives or else you will never “make it” in life. I don’t know how long it has been like this but it makes me sad.

        On top of that so many of us believe such terribly destructive things about the world and the people in it, so even when one wants to be close to one’s family, that is not always possible–not if one wants to follow one’s conscience and do what is right.

        Bad scene all the way around.

  5. Thank you for this thorough explanation of the Native view. It is very touching and sad. As one small white (Irish) woman, I am very sorry for the pain inflicted upon your people. As a mother of loss to adoption, I have watched the Veronica Brown case, and am very saddened and angered by the outcome. We can only raise our voices louder in the hope that one day all peoples will know their own and be held in the loving comfort of their homeland.

    • Thank you Becky for being understanding. An open mind and open heart helps when reading this, I am not bashing anyone’s ways just saying we need to bring ours back, which never included abuse.

  6. Yeah the white government didn’t like that we were treating our children good they hated that the united states was full of natives and not whites the one thing that the government needs to realize today is that we are not going any where this is our home and one day we will rise to the top

  7. Masi cho, thank you very much for your wisdom and sharing. Indeed, according to the 1948 United Nations Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide. Surely with Creator and Mother Earth’s help, the Indigenous tribes of Native America, united together, can take the United States of America and the Canadian Government, along with British and French Government to court for violating Article 2 of the CPPCG with United Nations. Perhaps then, out of the ashes of former governments, we can establish an Indigenous Governance that upholds Creator and Mother Earth’s laws ❤ With love and thanks, masi cho. April Bekale, Dene Nation, Yellowknife, Northwest Territories, Canada

  8. I’m an investigative journalist, currently reporting on ICWA and the displacement of native children. I would love to connect and chat about what I’m working on, if you’re interested. Feel free to look me up: Laura Rena Murray

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