In 1958, at 6 months old, Karen Hardenbrook of the Omaha Tribe was taken from the Winnebago, Nebraska reservation.
"Anytime a Native child is taken out of their culture, it's very much a journey to go home," said Hardenbrook. "My mother and my father were not there; when they came home, I was gone."
A church group reported inadequate living conditions, leaving Hardenbrook as a ward of the state, before an adoptive family took her in.
"The government's main wording was 'for the betterment of the child,' and if you were not married, that was not the betterment of the child," said Hardenbrook. "We had marriage yes, but it wasn't that piece of paper."
Hardenbrook's search for answers on her heritage did not come to light until she was 16 years old when she saw her birth certificate with her adoptive dad stating she was born in Winnebago.
"I looked at him, and I said, 'This is an Indian Reservation', and he says 'Yeah.' Well, then that means I'm really an Indian," said Hardenbrook. "All this time, I wanted to be an Indian and you knew I was an Indian. He says, 'Oh honey, there's lots of white people born on Indian Reservations.'"
"They loved me deeply, you know, but they loved me so much they kept me from who I really was and am as a native person."
Hardenbrook's story is a familiar one for scores of native peoples, underscoring the importance of the 1978 Indian Child Welfare Act.
"To try to keep Native children within Native families and if it wasn't safe for them to be with their biological family but to keep them within their tribe and to maintain connections," said Misty Flowers, executive director of Nebraska Indian Child Welfare Coalition.
Although ICWA has been law for 45 years, it's faced challenges over the years including in 2023.
"They were saying this is a race-based law," said Flowers.
In June, the Supreme Court ruled to leave the act intact.
"It was a huge win for Indian Country," said Flowers. "We say we educate; we advocate, we bring people together, and it's all about Indian children culturally connected rights protected."
Hardenbrook finally found the chance to rediscover her cultural heritage when reuniting with her Native grandmother.
"When we knocked on the door, there was my dream. Is she going to like me or is she going to send me away," says Hardenbrook. "She's crying, and she says 'thank you Creator for bringing me home,' and she welcomes me into her home."
November is Native American Heritage Month. On Nov. 3, the Nebraska Child Welfare Coalition will host a celebration of the Supreme Court's upholding of ICWA.
The event includes dinner, a silent auction, music and dancing starting at 6 p.m. at Joslyn Castle. To buy tickets, click here.
READ THE FULL STORY:Native woman shares long journey to rediscovering Omaha Tribe heritage