HAVANA, Cuba - Elian Gonzalez, the 6-year-old Cuban boy shipwrecked last November, is suffering the same fate as many Native children whose lives were forever changed by U.S. government policies, said Dennis Banks, co-founder of the American Indian Movement.
In one of two meetings held at the request of Elian's family here, Banks recalled that thousands of Indian children were taken by the government and placed in boarding schools where they were forced to assimilate into American society.
"Removing children from their parents and extended family resulted in the loss of languages, cultural identities and many traditional teachings," he said. "The United States is showing very weak judgment in keeping this young boy from his father and grandparents.
"We've struggled with this issue in Indian Country trying to keep our families together," Banks explained, noting that the Indian Child Welfare Act was created to curb the forced removal of Native children from their families.
"We all know what is morally right," he added. "Elian should be returned immediately."
On a recent 10-day cultural exchange to several provinces in Cuba, Banks and 13 other members of a Native delegation met with Elian's father, stepmother, baby brother, his four grandparents and Ricardo Alcaron, president of the Cuban National Assembly.
The family, tearful at times, expressed the anguish and heartache they feel daily while waiting for U.S. officials to honor international law and return their child. They said they struggled to understand why distant relatives in Miami who had met Elian only once would try to keep him over differences in political beliefs.
The delegation offered prayers, solace and support for Elian's safe return as thousands of Cuban citizens, mostly women, marched to demand his return to Cuba. The delegation included members of the Lakota, DinŽ, Anishinabe, Northern Paiute, Winnebago, Tlinget, Northern Ute, Omaha and Oneida tribes.
Elian's maternal grandmother, Raquel Rodriquez, denied widely reported speculation that her only child, Elizabeth, had sacrificed her life so that Elian could grow up in a free country.
"This is not true," Rodriquez said, noting Elizabeth refused to make the trip to Miami with her boyfriend, Lazaro Munero Garcia, once before, in June 1998.
"I was her mother. I speak for her because I know how she felt and how she behaved. She had everything she needed here her family, friends, a good job. I believe she was forced to take the trip because she had a (boyfriend) who was very violent and threatened her. This is what led to this tragedy," she said.
Two survivors of the boat wreck said Munero Garcia ran a smuggling operation, charging Cubans $2,000 each for the journey to Florida. His elderly mother and Elizabeth were among 11 Cubans who lost their lives at sea. Elian was found clinging to an inner tube two days after the boat went down and was released into temporary care of his great-uncle Lazaro Gonzales, an auto body repairman who lives in Miami.
The grandmothers said the family had no idea Elizabeth had taken Elian and left Cuba under dangerous and illegal circumstances. Elian spent equal time at his mother's and father's homes with close ties to both families.
Juan Miguel Gonzales was waiting for his son to arrive at his home when he heard the terrible news.
One little-known fact is that Elizabeth had seven miscarriages before his birth. Juan Miguel and Elizabeth sought the help of fertility specialists and followed doctors' instructions for five years before they were able to have their cherished Elian.
U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service officials have pleaded with Elian's relatives in Miami to allow a peaceful reunion with his father when he arrives in the United States with relatives and Elian's teacher and pediatrician.
Elian's great-uncle Lazaro Gonzalez has waged an ugly battle to keep the little boy in Miami under his care, citing the "better life" available to the child in the United States.
Anti-Castro demonstrators in Miami vowed that "Elian will not leave" in protests over the last few days and have promised to form a human chain to prevent authorities from attempting to reunite him with his father and Cuban family.
Meanwhile, Rachel Rodriquez and Mariela Quintana, Elian's grandmothers wait for him at home, praying for his safe return.
"I still have his Christmas presents," Rodriquez said.
Asked what message they would like to send to Native Americans, the grandmothers expressed good will and friendship, saying they welcome Native people to visit their country and see first-hand the goodness of the Cuban people.
"Tell them to pray for our grandson," they said.