Veronica Brown: The Taking of Native American Children

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.