PUBLISHED IN 2014
The way Navajo Indian Leland Morrill sees it; he was a victim of trafficking when he was four years old.
In the 1970s, Morrill, 48, was living with his grandparents on the Arizona Navajo reservation. His mother had died in a car crash a few years earlier. Besides one picture, her relatives were all she left behind for her young son.
But, as the state government would soon decide, that wasn’t enough.
The Morrill grandparents lived in a hogan, a Navajo Indian dwelling made of dirt, branches and mud, with an open fire pit. Morrill’s grandfather was blind. One day, when his great-grandmother went out with the sheep, Morrill stepped into the fire.
At the hospital, doctors determined that he suffered from first, second and third degree burns, broken bones and malnutrition. Morrill said the last affliction was through no fault of his grandparents.
“There was no electricity and no running water on the reservation. I would say everyone in that area was malnourished,” Morrill said.
The Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA), a federal organization designed to provide services to American Indian tribes, placed Morrill with a Caucasian Mormon couple as foster parents. The BIA paid them $65 a month to give him a home. Soon after, the Morrills adopted Leland and moved the family to Canada. Now, tribes across the nation are trying to recruit Native American foster families to keep their children in the tribe. Morrill has fought on the front lines in this effort. He filed an amicus brief in the Supreme Court case Adoptive Couple vs. Baby Girl last year. The case interpreted the Indian Child Welfare Act and concerned a Cherokee girl whose mother adopted her to a non-native family without her father’s consent. The father, who ultimately lost, sought to obtain custody of his daughter again.
“I know the inequality of children not being able to speak for themselves,” Morrill said. “Who’s going to speak for them?” Fifteen years would pass before Morrill himself saw the Navajo reservation again.During that time, Leland Morrill was one of about 2,000 Navajo children adopted annually by a Mormon family, according to the blog American Indian Adoptees. This was due to the Indian Adoption Project, a plan launched in 1958 by the BIA and the nonprofit Child Welfare League of America. The project paid states to remove American Indian children and place them in non-native or religious families to assimilate them into ‘conventional’ society. One goal was to give them opportunities the impoverished reservation could not provide for them, according to Reuters.
In the 1970s, Indian leaders went to the Senate and demanded an inquiry into the large numbers of their children disappearing. William Byler, the executive director of the Association of American Indian affairs, testified that under current conditions, tribal survival looked grim, according to American Indian Adoptees. In response, Congress passed the Indian Child Welfare Act (ICWA) in 1978. Under this law, states must do everything possible to keep Indian children with their families, or at least send them to Native American adoptive or foster families that the child’s tribe selects.
But many states, such as New Mexico, Alaska and California, lack licensed Indian foster families. In Los Angeles, about 200 American Indian kids are in the foster system and the city has no licensed foster families, according to L.A. children’s court judge Amy Pellman. In California, 439 Native American children entered foster care in 2012. This is a large number, given that Native Americans make up slightly over one percent of the state’s population, according to the Child Welfare Dynamic Report System, a joint effort of the California Department of Social Services and the University of California at Berkeley. The disproportionate amount suggests that welfare agencies still may pull Indian children from their homes too quickly, which children’s social worker Roberta Javier confirmed.
“When I was growing up, I had a cousin in my adoptive family who stepped into a pile of burning trash,” Morrill said. This was similar to the incident Morrill suffered that resulted in his removal from his Navajo grandparents. “When I asked my adoptive family why he didn’t get taken, they had no response.”
Javier, who is Cherokee and Sac & Fox Indian, formed a task force with other Los Angeles Natives to recruit more foster and adoptive families. They are working on a public service announcement to air on local TV channels and FNX, a Native American channel. The key message, ‘lend a hand,’ evokes a cultural ideal. Morrill attends the task force meetings and has contributed ideas, but is not a member of any committee.
“It’s traditional in Native American culture when you see someone who needs help you step up. It’s part of being in a collective community,” Javier said.
Adopted Native children are often disconnected from their culture. Growing up, Morrill’s foster parents raised him in the Mormon Church. They did not teach him anything about his tribe or its customs.
“My dad once took me on a business trip to Pine Ridge reservation (South Dakota). I don’t think he really understood the importance of culture,” Morrill said. The reservation is home to the Oglala Sioux, a tribe that Morrill does not belong to.
Even if non-native adoptive parents do show appreciation for their child’s background, children can still feel alienated without others around like them. Jennifer Varenchik, 42, an adoptee and member of the Tohono-O’odham tribe, said her adoptive dad researched her tribe and hung their baskets in the house. But she said still felt like an outsider in her predominately white neighborhood.
“When I was in sixth grade, a black family moved down the street and I was so happy because I wouldn’t be the only one with dark skin,” she said.
But when Varenchik tried to learn more about her roots, the process was not as natural as she expected.
“I took some Native studies classes in college, but it felt really foreign to me,” Varenchik said. “I felt like it should have a deeper meaning, but it didn’t.”After finishing college at St. Mary’s, in Moraga, Calif., Varenchik moved to Los Angeles, which she knew had a large urban Indian population (the second largest in the U.S., according to Indian Country Today Media Network). She started work at United Indian American Involvement, a nonprofit providing service and support to American Indians in California, and began attending powwows. She even reconnected with her biological siblings on the reservation in Arizona.
But not every adoptee’s story ends as happily. Javier’s own painful experiences compelled her to campaign for more Native foster families.
“I’ve been in 17 foster homes from the ages 6-16. I was separated from one of my (biological) sisters who then got lost in the system. A social worker took her to a group home and my sister ran away. Four days later, her social worker killed herself so there was a disconnect (in information),” Javier said. “It took me 25 years to find my sister.”The task force efforts began two years ago, but members have yet to find a single foster family. They are collaborating with Los Angeles County, but Javier cites a lack of cultural awareness among officials as part of the problem. She gave the example of the county sending a non-native woman to an American Indian church sing to speak on the shortage of foster parents.
“This is like sending an African-American to recruit for a Chinese home,” she said.
But more Native adoptees are coming together to talk about the issue. Morrill has started a blog and a Facebook page where he shares his story and circulates others’. He said his efforts are “normalizing the craziness of what it’s like to be an adoptee,” and helping disconnected Natives repatriate to their tribes. Though Morrill and Varenchik cannot control the past, they are combining their influence and education to improve the future for other American Indians.
“I’m the opposite of the people on the reservation, but I’m fighting for their rights and their children’s rights,” Morrill said.
Reach Staff Reporter Anne Artley here
|Leland was 48 at the time of this story. He lives in LA, CA.|
Leland's search and reunion is laid out in the book series (see the sidebar for the Lost Children books...)