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Don't Let a South Carolina Judge Disenroll Baby Veronica

Hundreds of articles have been published and thousands of comments have been shared online. Tribes around the country have galvanized their support. Even so, Baby Veronica was sent to South Carolina where she may live out her childhood years in the arms of a family who clearly loves her, but whose inclusion in her short life has caused a tidal wave of controversy and calls of racism. A committed father in Oklahoma clearly is devastated and wrongfully separated from his child.

Custody battles are many times brutal narratives and the issues surrounding the Veronica case are ones which have played over time and time again in Indian country. Most of these cases are little known such as In re Bridget R. Here it was stated by the court, “…ICWA does not and cannot apply to invalidate a voluntary termination of parental rights respecting an Indian child who is not domiciled on a reservation, unless the child’s biological parent, or parents, are not only of American Indian descent, but also maintain a significant social, cultural, or political relationship with their tribe.

Dusten Brown most likely never voluntarily withdrew his parental rights and so this case could be argued as non-applicable. We could also argue that determining a “significant social, cultural, or political relationship with a tribe” is up to a large number of interpretations. I do not disagree with any contestation by a tribal body of what constitutes these definitions accurately and I realize that non-Indian courts cannot adequately determine such definitions. However, in all honesty, it is highly doubtful that the Brown family could have met a standard of significant social, cultural, or political tribal relationship if judged and determined by a contingent of Indian people who were not being persuaded by the pressure of upholding tribal sovereignty.

What the courts have put in motion will have a predictable result. As one not raised around his father past age four, I can assure you that Baby Veronica will spend a lifetime longing for hers. It makes no difference if Dusten Brown is viewed as non-Indian or Indian, cultural or non-cultural.

This reality is driven home to me each day as I am blessed to work as an employee of our local public school Indian Education program with young Indian men enduring lives of incarceration in juvenile detention centers and group homes. Many have lived their lives partially or fully in foster care and have had little connection to their indigenous cultures due to this. The disconnection and its results are completely observable. Those who have lived with a parent or other relative are most likely to have lived with their mothers or a female relation. In Indian Country Father’s Day is a complex holiday to be sure. Disconnecting young Indian males from their roots and male family members can have devastating consequences and at times requires long, arduous journeys home.

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Removal from one’s family is a form of legalized disenrollment and disenrollment is a form of violence. In connection to all of this I can definitely comment with conviction and responsibility on the issues surrounding the disenrollment of the other “Veronicas” that are not receiving the level of Indian unification and related strong defense from tribal backers, advocates, and activists as Baby Veronica has.

Though of minor Indian descent and cultural connection, Baby Veronica has created outrage and volatile screams of the trampling on of tribal sovereignty from Indian leaders nationwide. This little girl has become a one stop political platform for local, regional, and national Indian organizations and tribes. Ironically, these same tribes and individuals can barely put together a sentence concerning the many little “Veronicas” who are being thrown out of their tribes, removed from their local Indian schools, cut off from needed Indian Health Service programs, and more. Where is the outrage? Where are the screams for justice concerning the removal and attempted removal (aka disenrollment) of children from over 50 tribes over the past dozen years? Baby Veronica it seems was tribal sovereignty convenient, while the wholesale disenfranchisement of over a thousand children from tribes nationally barely causes a ripple in Indian Country’s proverbial pond.

The 3/256 Indian by blood baby girl has shown herself (without her knowledge or approval) a more formidable opponent and pied piper for the presumed Indian cause then hundreds of physically and culturally identifiable Indian children, as well as Indian Freedmen (many of whom are also of Indian blood descent and cultural affiliation), who have become “tribal sovereignty’s” latest victims. In an effort to protect ever changing legal definitions of identity and tribal sovereignty, many in Indian Country have conveniently pushed aside all moral considerations. Heck, the Washington D.C. NFL team issue gets one thousand times the press coverage. It seems a much safer engagement to dispute a racist caricature than to confront one’s own people engaged in the attempted social, cultural, and economic genocide of actual living Indians.

Baby Veronica, despite the failed court result, has highlighted the power of the connected in Indian Country, while furthering the divide of those occupying the bottom rung such as the disenrolled.

Where is the ICWA for those who were clearly enrolled and community connected members of their tribes and who are now found on the sidelines with no hope of entering back into the game? Why have the many tribes who have not disenrolled their own shown an unwillingness to level sanctions on those who have by insuring their exclusion from the national Indian family? Why does a country who is willing to blockade Cuba and drive its guns and missiles deep into the Middle East allow for the paper genocide of nations of people surrounded by its borders? The politically powerful in Indian Country want it both ways and they are getting it while those of us with a conscience sit silently by. Rhetoric over rationality. Constitutions over community. Ethnocide over ethics. Sovereignty over sensibilities. Violence overshadowed by Veronica. Why have so many fought so diligently to keep her in, while also sitting idly by or even contributing diligently to pushing the other children out? Where is the outrage?

Cedric Sunray (MOWA Band of Choctaw Indians) is a longtime educator and current University of Oklahoma College of Law student.