PABLO– Sandra White Hawk (Sicangu Lakota) said she was 18-months-old when she recalled being taken in a red pickup truck. “I remembered sitting between these two strangers,” she said. “I didn’t know where I was going. I had an outer body experience from the trauma of it all and I remember watching myself drive down the dirt road with these people.”
The strangers were White Hawk’s adoptive parents and they were a white missionary couple originally from Illinois. White Hawk said she suffered abuse during her upbringing in their home. “It was difficult being the only Native person in town and there was racism,” she said. “My adoptive mother suffered from mental illness and I was subjected to abuse.”
White Hawk said she was placed in the foster care system through a referral made by a Catholic church that operated on the Rosebud Reservation in South Dakota. “Churches received federal funding for referring Native children into the foster care system on my reservation,” she said. “The truth is this is a business and it’s tearing many Native people from their homes.”
White Hawk collaborated with filmmakers Drew Nicholas and Megan Whitmer to document her experience as a foster care survivor in the film “Blood Memory,” which was screened at Salish Kootenai College. “I’m thankful that this story could be shared,” White Hawk said. “There are many survivors out there without a voice.”
The film investigates the epidemic of Native American children being taken from their homes since the Indian Civilization Act (1819), which resulted in over 60,000 Native American children being forced to attend government funded boarding schools throughout the country. Whitmer said she was horrified reading through old accounts from boarding school staff. “They discussed the money they were receiving from the government,” she said. “They talked about how the schools were cheaper than what it would cost to kill the Native people but this was a business since early on.”
The business of adoption and child welfare in America is a $16 billion industry, according to 2018 reports from the business market research firm IBIS World. Nicholas has been working on the project since 2010 and said it was a learning experience. “It was eye-opening for me to learn that adoption isn’t just this beautiful thing, we’re seeing that it can be really terrible too,” he said. “It’s a huge industry and historically Native communities have been the most vulnerable.”
The film highlights the “Indian Adoption Era,” which was a federal program conducted between 1958 through 1967, which resulted in 35 percent of all Native American children being forcibly removed from their homes and adopted into white families. “There is this white superiority complex that says that we as Native people can’t take care of ourselves and that mentality has been very destructive,” White Hawk said.
Thanks to the testimony of Native American mothers who went before Congress, the Indian Child Welfare Act was passed in 1978. The legislation is now considered the “gold standard” in adoption practices and governs legislation over Native American children. “It took 20 years for this epidemic of Native children being placed in the foster care system to be addressed by the federal government,” Nicholas said. “The women who went before Congress truly were heroic.”
Since ICWA passed, Native American children are still overrepresented in the foster care system. The National Indian Child Welfare Association (NICWA) reports that rates of Native American children in the foster care system are 2.7 times greater than the general population in 2017 and 40 percent of the cases are placed by tribal authorities. In Montana, Native American children account for 30 percent of the state’s out of home care cases.
White Hawk works with fellow Native American survivors of the foster care system. “Blood Memory” is currently being screened across the country and was an official selection for the 2019 Big Sky Documentary Film Festival.
For more information on the film, visit: www.bloodmemorydoc.com