Baby Veronica: U.S. Doesn't Respect or Understand Native Culture

Dina Gilio-Whitaker

A note from Ray Cook, ICTMN Opinions Editor: The political and legal ramifications of the Baby Veronica case have, in broad strokes, done two things. First, the case tipped the hands of the various Catholic Charity Organizations to "evangelicalize" (recruit, if you will) new souls for their church pews. Their strategy, now exposed, includes the dismantling of the Indian Child Welfare Act.

Second, this event must be won on behalf of our sovereign nations because the alternative will mean that the legal, diplomatic and political foundations of our current relationships with other nations will begin to crumble under heavy bombardment from those who believe us to "be in the way" of the expansion plans of American religion and economic expansion and energy resource extraction—right or wrong.

Unfortunately, the love of child and the pursuit of a healthy family will be disrespected, trampled and eventually lost in this mess. It is the hidden agenda that will win— count on it. Through this challenge to our rights to raising our own natural-born citizens, we must learn—and learn the lessons fast—so it will not again be repeated.

Here, Dina Gilio-Whitaker offers us a glimps into the background and possible future of not only the affected individuals, but those not yet born.

Over the past few days, as well as in upcoming columns, we will be looking at this sad event from all approachable angles with grave concern for our future generations. My favorite so far is Steve Russell's letter to the adoptive parents and their supporters.


The Baby Veronica adoption case hits very close to home for me on several levels ranging from personal to political, as a person of American Indian heritage and as an indigenous studies scholar, but also as a former adoption professional. I’ve worked as an assistant adoption facilitator and lived in a residential program for birth mothers where I served as their advocate and advisor. I have siblings I’ve never met because of their adoption placements before I was born, pre-Indian Child Welfare Act (ICWA) and in the era of closed adoptions. One of them I believe was taken forcibly. This means they were Indian kids who more than likely were raised without any knowledge of their culture and possibly without even knowing they were Indian. I’ve tried unsuccessfully to find them, in large part because of the sealing of their adoption records. I am no stranger to the agony adoption exacts on the families involved, even decades into the future. My family’s experience is in a very real way a perfect example of why the ICWA was passed in 1978.

I know from my experience as an adoption professional that no one enters into adoption lightly. No decision a woman can make in her life is more excruciating than to give a baby up for adoption, no matter the reason. If there is a birthfather in the picture, the specter of adoption can be profoundly confusing and equally painful. Adoptive couples like the Capobiancos usually struggle for years with infertility, leading them finally to adoption agencies in their desperation to have a child. They are typically people far more economically privileged than birthparents since they can afford to spend the tens of thousands of dollars it costs to adopt while birthparents typically do adoption placements because they are ill-equipped to raise a child, financially and otherwise.

For single many birthmothers adoption is a way out of a difficult situation. Many, like Christy Maldonado, already have other children they aren’t raising and have either sent away to relatives to raise, or have placed for adoption. In today’s atmosphere of open adoptions birthmothers interview and choose adoptive couples while all work together cooperatively, establishing adoption plans, even going to doctor’s visits together. It is common practice for the adoptive couples to pay for living expenses and sometimes even healthcare during the pregnancy, although many, like Maldonado, opt for state-assisted (i.e. taxpayer-funded) healthcare.

In other words, for an adoptive couple like the Capobiancos, the adoption process is an investment of time, intense emotional energy and large amounts of money. As ICTMN reported, the Caopbiancos as of two years ago were into their adoption of Baby Veronica (or Ronnie, as her family calls her) for $30,000 to $40,000 based on court records. People who are desperate for a child, where adoption is (very problematically) market-driven, with demand far exceeding availability-- with that kind of energy and financial investment, aren’t going to give up easily. The Capobiancos undoubtedly are emotionally attached to Ronnie, but this fight seems to be more of an ideological war for them and their faith-based supporters than it is about what is in the best interest of the little girl.

On a socio-cultural (and inevitably political) level, the so-called Baby Veronica case is a stark reminder of how narratives of Native American identity have been constructed in the US. Much of the non-Native media reporting has invoked Dusten Brown and his daughter’s blood quantum in a way that minimizes their Cherokee identities. Emphasizing low blood quantum is an attempt, whether intentional or not, to diminish the role of culture and kinship as criteria for belonging in a tribal society. It relies on the tired and old but very destructive stereotype that “real Indians” are those with an acceptable fraction of Indian “blood,” arbitrarily imagined by society at large.

But worse still, invoking blood quantum complicates the understanding of Indian identity in the public’s eye by “racializing” it—a tactic favored by anti-Indian activists such as the Coalition for the Protection of Indian Children and Families who are working for the dismantling of the ICWA. Because ICWA is “race-based,” so the argument goes, it is unconstitutional.

In Indian country we’ve said it a million times and we’ll keep on saying it until everyone gets it—Indian identity is not based on racial categorizations, it’s based on political distinctions. That is, Native nations composed of individual Indians (which they themselves are free to determine—even if based on racialized ideas of blood quantum) are nations not because they consist of people of a particular racial make-up, but because of their pre-constitutional existence and their political relationship with the US. Thus, the efforts of anti-ICWA activists is really an ideology bent on the continued suppression of the political rights of Native nations.

Dina Gilio-Whitaker (Colville) is a research associate at the Center for World Indigenous Studies and freelance writer.