DIANA JEFFERSON: Want to go skip rocks, Rosa?

ROSA JEFFERSON: Okay, I would grab this one. I will throw it.

ARCHIVAL (PBS, NEWSHOUR, 6-15-23):NEWS REPORT: The U.S. Supreme Court has upheld a decades-old law on adoptions of Native American children. The 1978 law gives preference to Native American families.

DIANA JEFFERSON: Throw further.

ARCHIVAL (ABC, 6-15-23):NEWS REPORT: The law was being challenged by a group of white Christian foster parents who alleged that it was unconstitutional racial discrimination.

ARCHIVAL (INDIAN COUNTRY TODAY, 6-15-23):NEWS REPORT: The federal law will remain intact.

AMY LONETREE: There has been a long history of child removal, to remove Native American children and place them in white homes. This legislation is so important. It is about the future of our nations, the future of our communities.


DIANA PHAIR (DRIVING IN HER CAR GIVING A TOUR OF THE RESERVATION): This is the Lummi Reservation, and were not on an island, but were a long peninsula and water is on – water is a big part of our heritage. Its your canoe racing, your harvesting of your clams and your fish.

DIANA PHAIR (LUMMI NATION, EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR, LUMMI HOUSING AUTHORITY): We knew we wanted to build a project here, a place that would be helping to bring children home out of foster care. Because at that time, we had over 200 kids in foster care. We had people come in saying, I lost my kids. I need to get my kids back. And so we knew we needed to help provide the stable housing for return of the children.

DIANA JEFFERSON: At first, it was like really hard to believe that we’re here and to be a family again makes me so happy. Back in 2019, my mom was very sick and I started using around then. When she passed away, we really didn’t have nowhere to go at the time, and the trailer that we were staying in was really small. And the kids, you know, were missing a lot of school. CPS was called on us and the cops came and grabbed our kids We had to do a lot to get where were at today to get our kids back.

TEXT ON SCREEN: Sche’lang’en Village Weekly Group Meeting

SCHE’LANG’EN RESIDENT (SPEAKING TO MEETING ATTENDEES): I grew up in the foster care system… and then I turned 18 and ran off.


SCHE’LANG’EN RESIDENT:…and then I turned 18 and ran off, so…

JOHN PLUMMER (BEING INTERVIEWED): When I work with them, I’m just coming alongside and hearing their stories, and then helping them connect the dots to past trauma.

JOHN PLUMMER: So tonight, we’re just going to talk about some of the history and heritage we have from our families.

DIANA JEFFERSON: My grandma would talk to me about her going to boarding school. She talked about the abuse that she went through.

JOHN PLUMMER: Anyone else?

CLAIRE (SCHE’LANG’EN RESIDENT): Im just trying to break that generational cycle of childhood trauma. And having this place of safety and, you know, knowing that my son won’t get taken away and won’t get hurt by anybody.

JOHN PLUMMER: That’s what it’s all about. Breaking that cycle of the trauma from the past.

TEXT ON SCREEN: North Dakota

DENNIS DECOTEAU (TURTLE MOUNTAIN BAND OF CHIPPEWA): It was in 65-66. The Bureau of Indian Affairs, they had a police force, and they were going around and they were rounding up some of these kids. And so, they came to our house, and they picked me up and they put me in the police car. I was 11. They put us on a bus, and were going to this boarding school Wahpeton Indian Boarding School.

TEXT ON SCREEN: Wahpeton Indian School, Wahpeton, North Dakota

DENNIS DECOTEAU: I wrote down a couple of words when I, when I tried to explain, uh, tried to describe my experience there. Um… abuse, uh, neglect, bullying, torture, and pain.

TEXT ON SCREEN: Fort Totten Indian Industrial School, Fort Totten, North Dakota

DENISE LAJIMODIERE (TURTLE MOUNTAIN BAND OF OJIBWE, ASSOCIATE PROFESSOR, NORTH DAKOTA STATE UNIVERSITY, 2006-2018): I’ve been doing research along with the National Native American Boarding School Healing Coalition for about a decade. The first off-reservation federal boarding school was 1879. They developed pretty rapidly after that. The social ills that we’re experiencing now, so many of them come from the boarding school era.

DENISE LAJIMODIERE (WALKING THROUGH THE SCHOOL): This is where my father and my grandfather, were sent here.

DENISE LAJIMODIERE: I want America to be aware of what happened to us. I call it America’s best-kept secret.

LORETTA MONETTE (TURTLE MOUNTAIN BAND OF CHIPPEWA): We walked in and all these strange people were standing there. People talking rough and mean and jerking us in line, and we didnt know from one day or another what was going to happen to us. We were all afraid of being there.

DENNIS DECOTEAU: I have flashbacks getting to the school. Im noticing that theyre cutting everybodys hair off. There were kids, uh, crying. I remember young, you know, young Native Americans. You know I think that they, um, they prided themselves on their, their long hair.

ARCHIVAL (FOX MOVIETONE NEWS STORY, 6-19-29):C.L. WALKER: The children as we find them, before we bring them to the government schools. We bring them in, clean them up. They are being rapidly brought from their state of comparative savagery and barbarism to one of civilization.

DENISE LAJIMODIERE (WALKING THROUGH THE SCHOOL): So these are the sinks, the troughs that the little boys would have come wash up in the morning. Oh, this is really in bad shape.

My Father was beaten severely.

Some more storage of the old desks.

And they were told, you know, you filthy stinking Indians, and you’ll never amount to anything.

And back here is the dungeon. So this is where boys were put when they didnt speak English.

DENNIS DECOTEAU: At Wahpeton, there was, uh, 18 rooms on each wing and they were all numbered. And there was an equipment room that didnt have a number on it. So, we gave it that name Room 19. And there was a little metal, um, grill on the door about this big. And, uh, one day, I noticed that there was some kids all standing around this grill and you can hear this kid getting beaten in this room. One day, I took some food out of the cafeteria. And, I got into trouble for, uh, for doing that. And I ended up in Room 19. Your choice was the fiberglass fishing pole, or the razor strap.

LORETTA MONETTE: They would haul us out early in the morning before breakfast to go and work. We did hard labor, like little tiny miniature slaves, and whose brains were just now starting to function for five, six, seven years. I have male friends that told me the things that were done to them by priests. We were taught so much hardship that they didnt teach us nothing except anger as we got older.

DENNIS DECOTEAU: It was difficult for me. I was kind of a lost, lost soul, you know, just stumbling around. Its hard to talk about it because it was something that I tried to block out of my mind.

DENISE LAJIMODIERE: My folks did not send me or my brother and sister to boarding school, but I still suffer from the effects of them having attended boarding school. My father was very verbally abusive. We were hit a lot. I always say where did they learn to be parents?

TEXT ON SCREEN: The boarding schools were phased out over time. But a new era of removal was emerging.

AMY LONETREE (HO-CHUNK NATION, PROFESSOR OF HISTORY, UNIVERSITY OF CALIFORNIA, SANTA CRUZ): The social workers kind of took over from where the boarding schools left off. Native families were basically under surveillance by social welfare agencies and they used any excuse they could to remove native children.

ARCHIVAL (ASSOCIATED PRESS, 7-16-68):LEWIS GOODHOUSE (TRIBAL CHAIRMAN, DEVILS LAKE SIOUX): Lately here, we’ve had a lot of trouble with the social welfare at Benson County coming in and taking children away from the mothers and fathers and grandmothers.ALVINA ALBERTS: We want our children and our grandchildren, but we are not allowed to keep them.

REBECCA BLACK (QUILEUTE-ENROLLED QUINAULT INDIAN NATION): We call it the scoop era because your children weren’t safe playing in their front yards. Your children weren’t safe walking home from school.

ARCHIVAL (ASSOCIATED PRESS, 7-16-68):JEANNETTE GOODHOUSE: When a new car comes into the yard, they run in the house and Mama, are they coming after us now? And theyre always, every day and every night when a car comes, they’re afraid that they’re coming now to get them. Cause they hear the talk, too.

SANDY WHITE HAWK (SICANGU LAKOTA, ROSEBUD SIOUX TRIBE): My very first recall is being lifted into the window of a red truck and placed between two strangers. And the smell. The smell of the skin of the woman next to me. The smell of the dust of the, the man, and these became my parents, my adoptive parents.

BERTRAM HIRSCH (FORMER LEGAL COUNSEL, ASSOCIATION ON AMERICAN INDIAN AFFAIRS): Starting in 1968, I was tasked with trying to determine what was going on with tribes nationwide. Virtually every tribe in the country was experiencing somewhere in the 25 to 35 percent, uh, out-of-home placement situation for all their kids. There was frequently not an allegation of child abuse. Almost never of child abuse. Child neglect? Yes. Neglect by the lights of what these caseworkers or social workers wanted to define as neglect, which was almost always conditions of poverty. They werent doing the same thing to white poor folks. They werent doing that.

REBECCA BLACK: My mother was taken during that era from our people, from my grandparents and my great grandparents. My grandmother Myrtle found out where they were and, she went to go get her children. But with a swing of the gavel, a white judge said that she was morally unfit to raise her children. While my grandma and my great grandparents are fighting to regain custody, my mother has already been transported out of state into white adoption.

The family that adopted my mother was really abusive. And when she got pregnant with me they sent her away to a Catholic girls’ home. She went into labor and then, the nuns brought, uh, paperwork for her. They said, you just need to sign these. And I was taken from the room, and she asked, where’s my child? Where’s my little girl? I want to hold my baby. And, they told her, you will never see your child. You signed papers, adoption papers for her.

BERTRAM HIRSCH: The Bureau of Indian Affairs established this project called the Indian Adoption Project, which was funded and financed by the federal government, but it was carried out by the Child Welfare League of America and its affiliated adoption agencies.

REBECCA BLACK: These are the papers that changed my life forever.

BERTRAM HIRSCH: The market for Indian children emerged because the white families wanted to adopt a white baby. But white babies were in short supply. And so they started to look elsewhere. And the next best thing, it seems, was a Native American kid.

REBECCA BLACK: We were being advertised to middle-class, white America as of these, like, poor Indian waifs who have no one, who have nothing.

SANDY WHITE HAWK (DIRECTOR OF HEALING PROGRAMS, NATIONAL NATIVE AMERICAN BOARDING SCHOOL HEALING COALITION): And they made sure they used words that made us seem like we were orphans. The child that nobody wanted. I wasnt needing a home. I had a home. And I had a family. I had a huge family that cared and loved for me. But I remember my adoptive mom said, your mother didnt really want you. She just wanted to keep you so she would get a welfare check so she could drink. That I needed to be grateful, more grateful because any Indian kid on the reservation would be happy to be where Im at.

BERTRAM HIRSCH: Everybody knew that there were children in out-of-home placements. But nobody connected the dots and realized that this was an epidemic.

ARCHIVAL (U.S. SENATE SUBCOMMITTEE HEARING, NBC NEWS, 4-8-74):SENATOR JAMES ABOURZEK: We have called these hearings today to begin to define the specific problems that American Indian families face in raising their children.

BERTRAM HIRSCH: This was an unknown issue in the Congress, and we had to make it a known issue.

ARCHIVAL (U.S. SENATE SUBCOMMITTEE HEARING, NBC NEWS, 4-8-74):CHERYL SPIDER DECOTEAU: They always come to me and said that wasn’t, I wasn’t a very good mother and everything, and that my children would be better off if they were in a white home or if they were adopted out.SENATOR JAMES ABOURZEK: They, they said that but were they ever able to prove that in court, or did they give anybody a specific example of why you weren’t a good mother?BERTRAM HIRSCH: It was never proven in court that she was unfit.

AMY LONETREE: We saw an issue that had to be addressed. And you had grandmas and aunties gathering together. And they were out there fighting for our children.

ARCHIVAL (ABC, 7-17-78):NEWS REPORT: Several hundred Indians and their supporters walked from the Lincoln Memorial past the Washington Monument up to Capitol Hill today to support certain legislation including one proposed law that will affect their right to decide what can happen to Indian children.

BERTRAM HIRSCH (PRINCIPAL AUTHOR, INDIAN CHILD WELFARE ACT): We mounted a massive campaign to get this law through. It was just jubilation. You know, just total jubilation.

TEXT ON SCREEN: The Indian Child Welfare Act was signed into law in 1978. It enacted legal protections for Native families, affirmed the authority of tribal governments over their children, and prioritized Native homes in adoption and foster care placements.

MARIE STARR (MUCKLESHOOT INDIAN TRIBE, FORMER TRIBAL CHAIRWOMAN): The Indian Child Welfare Act, that was a blessing for our children. Some of the kids were coming back from being out in foster care and, they were hurt. Their, their spirit was hurt. They didn’t know where they belonged. Their identity was gone. You want to make sure that your kids are safe. Let us do our job. Let us take care of our children. And it is our right. It’s our right to take care of them.

TEXT ON SCREEN: But in 2022, the Indian Child Welfare Act came before the Supreme Court.

ARCHIVAL (ABC, 11-30-22):NEWS REPORT: One Texas family wants justices to strike it down and make it easier for non Native families to adopt Native American kids.

ARCHIVAL (KOTV, 11-11-22):NEWS REPORT: Petitioners argued I.C.W.A. not only went beyond Congress authority to govern Indian affairs, but violates the constitutions guarantee of equal protection.

REBECCA BLACK: If the Indian Child Welfare Act had been in place when my mother was taken, she would have grown up in our community and with our people. She would have grown up with her extended family around her. She would have grown up knowing who she was as a, as a young girl. For me, the story was very similar. The abuse that I suffered in my adoption was horrific. I lived for a long time like my mother, really disconnected. And so, healing for me has taken a long time. I looked for it my whole life in other things, you know, self-medicating and all of the things that people do looking outside of themselves. And it wasn’t until connecting to our culture and our ceremony that I started this healing of my own.

AMANDA CHAVIRA (REBECCA BLACKS DAUGHTER, QUILEUTE DESCENDANT, FUTURE CITIZEN OF QUINAULT INDIAN NATION): As a kid, it was painful and it sometimes was scary. All of you were operating out of your trauma, and we were then suffering for it, and I didnt know that. I equated culture with the pain and suffering of our people, um, and the ways that people act that out. I didnt feel like transformations started to happen until later. I remember weeping and thinking all of this is what was taken from me. Because before, I thought of it in relation to you. This was taken from you. This is what happened to you and your mom. And Id always separated myself from it. Um, and so that was the first moment where I was like this was taken from me, myself. And then in turn from my children.

TEXT ON SCREEN: Puyallup Tribes Annual First Fish Ceremony

AMANDA CHAVIRA: During the ceremonies, like when Im dancing and Im singing and Im able to be a part of that, it feels powerful. Because its healing. Its beautiful. Its amazing to know that youre there witnessing me doing my thing. And each time that we do it I feel stronger.


AMANDA CHAVIRA: I feel my Indian is stronger.

REBECCA BLACK: Yes. It took four generations to heal the trauma that was created from my mother being taken from our people.

AMANDA CHAVIRA: And so, the hope is, is that with each generation its going to get a little bit easier on them, you know, a little bit less that theyre going to have to heal from.

DENNIS DECOTEAU (RETIRED IN 2022): Im getting close to the end of my career. I had quite a few jobs in education. And made my way back to Dunseith, here, uh, about four years ago. And I was thinking about these, these students that I went to school with when I went down, down to my office there, and, um, their faces are forever young in my mind. And a lot of them are gone now, of course, you know. When I think about that, I think about, you know, what am, what am I doing here? What is my responsibility? You know, if I could have an impact on one childs life, especially a Native American one, then, you know, Ive, Ive accomplished my goal. Divulging these stories that Ive kept in my vaults for 50 years is, I think its a way for me to heal. But those wounds are still there. Theyre still there, you know, after 50 years. So time doesnt heal all.


On June 15th, the Supreme Court rejected challenges to the Indian Child Welfare Act.

Todays decision is a major victory for Native tribes, children, and the future of our culture and heritage.

–Officials of the Cherokee Nation, Morongo Band of Mission Indians, Oneida Nation and Quinault Indian Nation