America's 'lost birds' fly home
Adopted Indians find way back to their tribes

By Pauline Arrillaga
Associated Press

BYLAS, ARIZONA - She waited in the Social Services Office while her husband went for a walk. They were a long way from home in Ames, Iowa, and more than a little nervous.

They were about to meet their new son.

Linda and Laurent Hodges had seen a blurb in the newspaper about Indian children needing permanent homes. They liked the Southwest and were intrigued by Indian culture. Most of all, they had been unable to conceive and desperately wanted a child.

They contacted Iowa Social Services and put in a request: Could they adopt an Indian baby?

The couple had heard tales of Indian children being snatched from their families without cause, under the pretense of rescuing them from a life of poverty and despair. So when they learned that Arizona officials had a 4-month-old Apache boy available, they checked the circumstances.

The mother was unmarried, an alcoholic. The father was out of the picture. The boy's older brother was in foster care, and his sister had been adopted. This child lived in yet another foster home.

On June 2, 1970, the Hodges couple arrived at the Social Services Office near the San Carlos Indian Reservation. Before her husband had returned from his walk, Linda Hodges saw the social worker coming, with a baby the color of milk chocolate, wearing a sky-blue shirt and a diaper. He had a tuft of brown hair and huge eyes to match.

"He likes orange juice," his foster mother had scribbled in a notebook she sent with the child. "He isn't a crybaby."

The couple named him Andrew, and the boy with dark skin and big brown eyes took his place among his new White family in middle America, far from his tribe and his heritage, far from the relatives the Hodges couple knew nothing about.

It would be 26 years before Andrew would return.

The adoption project

This year, the head of the Child Welfare League of America offered American Indians something they had longed to hear for more than three decades: an apology for taking their children.

From 1958 to 1967, the league, along with the Bureau of Indian Affairs, worked with social workers across the country to aid in the adoptions of Indian children into non-Indian families.

Those who created the Indian Adoption Project said it stemmed from a study showing 1,000 Indian children were legally available for adoption but in foster care or being passed from family to family on a reservation, living in poverty and destitution.

To American Indians, the project was yet another attempt by the government to assimilate Indians into White society, another attempt to "kill the Indian, save the man" - or, in this case, the child.

"It was genuinely believed that Indian children were better off in White homes," says Terry Cross, executive director of the National Indian Child Welfare Association. "The philosophy was that Indian people would disappear and blend into society."

In all, 395 children from 16 states were adopted through the project. But the long-term effect was greater. The Child Welfare League wrote about the project and encouraged member agencies to continue to promote such adoptions.

In 1968, the project became part of the Adoption Resource Exchange of North America, a larger program for the adoption of "hard to place" children in the United States and Canada, the program through which Andrew Hodges was adopted.

The new home

Andrew grew up amid the cornfields and college life of Ames, Iowa, a mostly White, middle- to upper-class university community. His adoptive father, a Harvard graduate of English and French descent, taught physics at Iowa State. His mother, a blend of American and Austrian, was a freelance writer.

For as long as he can remember, Andrew knew he was adopted and that he was Indian. Until high school, he was the only dark student in class. Somehow, the empty fields after an Iowa harvest reminded him of a reservation he'd visited only once as a little boy while vacationing in Arizona.

Yet Andrew knew nothing about his native culture or his real family. It never occurred to him to ask. He was a member of the Hodges family, and an Iowan like any other, a boy who detasseled corn for extra money, worked on airplane and car models and howled with laughter at Laurel and Hardy movies.

"I didn't really think about it," Andrew says. "I had everything I needed with my family in Iowa."

Back on the reservation, a grandmother he'd never met enrolled him in the tribe. An aunt wondered where he was, whether he thought about them. A cousin didn't even know he existed.

The lingering legacy

Shay Bilchik, the head of the Child Welfare League who made the apology to Indians this year, calls the adoption project "narrow-minded thinking" and something "very hurtful to those children and their families."

By 1974, 25 percent of Indian children had been removed from their homes, placed in foster care, adoptive homes, institutions or boarding schools. The majority were cared for by non-Indians.

That started to change in 1978, with passage of the Indian Child Welfare Act. The law says that if Indian children are taken from their homes, social workers must try to place them with extended family, other tribal members or a different tribe before allowing adoption by non-Indians. The law also gives tribes jurisdiction over child welfare cases, allowing them to intervene in adoption proceedings.

Today, 12.5 percent of Indian children are in out-of-home care, but many of those are with extended family, according to Cross with the Indian child welfare association.

While the numbers have improved, the legacy of the Indian Adoption Project lingers.

Even now, Cross cites problems. Sometimes social workers aren't properly trained to identify children as Indian. Or agencies fail to notify tribes of adoptions.

However, the true legacy of the project lies with the children adopted during that time and since, the ones they call the "Lost Birds."

Among them is Cory Witherill, 29, the race car driver in Santa Monica, Calif., a Navajo adopted in 1972 who has searched unsuccessfully for his birth family for four years.

And Carol Jean Shoemaker, 54, of Rupert, W.Va., a Cherokee who is not even sure where she was born.

"I've written several tribes and sent pictures," she says. "It's kind of like putting my face on a milk carton, because I don't know what else to do."

Others have reunited with their birth families only to alienate their adoptive families.

After years of wondering why she looked different from her fair-skinned, blond sister, Diane Tommaney of Valley Center, Calif., was 36 when she finally confronted her adoptive mother. After tracking down her birth mother, her adoptive parents "freaked," she said, and wrote her out of their wills. She now goes by her Indian name, Diane Tells Her Name.

Others experience the opposite: rejection from birth families who consider them strangers.

"They don't know their language, their heritage. If they do come back, they feel totally like outsiders," says Marie Fox Belly, a Lakota who founded the Lost Bird Society, which maintains a Web site for adopted Indians.

Fox Belly unsuccessfully fought the adoption of her nephew by a non-Indian family after his White mother gave him up. Fox Belly's brother, who fathered the child, had refused to acknowledge the boy.

"The only thing that we can do is to pray, so the Lost Birds can find their way home," she says. "They are going to, but it's going to be a long flight."

Andrew Hodges was lucky: His flight wasn't so long once he embarked on the journey.

The way back

In 1996, when Andrew was 26, he went with his parents to the county courthouse to help a friend track down the child she had given up for adoption years earlier. There, the idea struck.

"Mom," he said, "we should try that."

Within a week, Linda Hodges had called the Social Services Office in Arizona, armed only with the name of Andrew's birth mother. A social worker asked a colleague if the name sounded familiar. The colleague happened to be one of Andrew's cousins.

Andrew's brother called a few days later.

During Mother's Day weekend 1996, Andrew returned to the San Carlos Reservation in eastern Arizona to reunite with his Apache family: his brother, Leo, who grew up in a foster home on the reservation; his maternal grandmother, Regina Clendon, who had enrolled him in the tribe; and a slew of aunts, uncles and cousins.

He didn't get to meet everyone. His sister was adopted off the reservation as an infant. No one knows where she is. His father, Adam Mull, died when Andrew was 10. His mother, Juana Johnson, died the year after Andrew was adopted.

"I was sad about it," he quietly recalls, not wanting to say more.

Andrew moved to Arizona in 1997. He lives and works in Phoenix, and returns to the reservation whenever he can. He is learning about his culture and proudly shows off his tribal enrollment card.

The adoptive parents

There was a time when Linda and Laurent Hodges wondered if they had done the right thing. When they found Andrew's family and discovered he had so many relatives, when they learned those relatives never wanted him to be adopted, they wondered.

"That made us feel very bad," says Linda Hodges, who along with her husband supports the Indian Child Welfare Act, even though they might not have their son had the law existed in 1970.

"Everyone has the right to their own children," she says.

Yet her son wouldn't change a thing about how he grew up, or the parents who raised him.

"There are times when I'm driving through the reservation and I think growing up there would have been kind of neat," he says. "But I had a great life. I'm happy, happy I've got two families now."

At least one birth relative agrees.

"I'm glad for the way things happened for him," says Althea Pike, Andrew's maternal aunt. "If he grew up here, he wouldn't have what he has now. Here, things are hard."

In June, Andrew and his parents returned to the reservation to visit his relatives. They stopped at the cemetery, and Andrew knelt by his birth parents' graves, while the parents who raised him stood back.

That day, his two families huddled on his grandma's couch as Linda and Laurent Hodges showed snapshots of Andrew's life: a baby with his mom on the beach, a teenager with straggly hair, and the first photograph ever taken of Andrew, when he was 6 weeks old. The social worker gave it to Linda and Laurent Hodges the day they came for their son.

Afterward, Andrew hugged his grandma goodbye. He and his folks stopped by his aunt's house for one more photo. Then, just as they had 31 years before, they climbed into their car and drove off, the boy with milk chocolate skin and big brown eyes, and the couple he calls "Mom and Dad."