Identity Theft | Feature | Chicago Reader

News & Politics » Feature

Identity Theft

In 1963, as part of a program to "rescue" Native American children from their own families, the government took John Dall from his mother and sent him off to a string of foster homes. Decades later his tribe came looking for him.

by

comment

For years John Dall had been mystified by a recurring vision. He didn't know whether it was a childhood incident, a story he'd been told long ago, or an illusion. During the day it seemed like a memory playing out in disconnected fragments. At night it came as a dream, more vivid but less real. He was a small boy standing alone in a shallow gully, surrounded by a vast burning field. Men and women were running around him, trying to put out the fire with blankets and coats. Suddenly he was swept up by a pair of strong arms, whisked away to a nearby road, and told not to move. Through a white haze he watched people run, and he listened to voices yelling in terror.

Dall, who's now 43, didn't begin to understand the vision until 12 years ago, when he got a call from the Illinois Department of Children and Family Services. He remembers that when he heard who was calling his heart sank. As a foster child and adoptee, he'd had a lot of experience with DCFS. "To me DCFS was a four-letter word," he says. "Every time DCFS showed up it meant someone was leaving, or it meant I was leaving. It was not good."

But this time was different. The caseworker was calling to tell him something he'd never known: that he was a Ho-Chunk Indian and members of his tribe were looking for him.

In the 1950s Chicago was one of five cities chosen by the federal government as a relocation spot for Native Americans under a plan to end the culture of poverty on the reservations. As an incentive to relocate, Native Americans were offered onetime payments of a few thousand dollars.

Dall's mother was one of hundreds of Native Americans who left their tribes and came to Chicago. John, the oldest of the children she had while living in the city, was removed from her care when he was three. He vividly remembers the night in 1963 when police officers came to his home to collect him and his two brothers. The police were responding to a call from a neighbor, who'd told DCFS staff that his mother wasn't able to care for her children. "They went under the assumption," he says, "that if you were poor and Indian you couldn't take care of your kids." He remembers that the police had nowhere to put them that first night, so he and his brothers slept in a holding cell.

Removing Native American children from their homes was common back then. From the 1950s until the mid-70s thousands of children across the nation were removed from their families and tribes and adopted or placed in foster care. Native Americans make up only 1 percent of the population, but according to the American Indian Policy Center, a midwest research and education organization, they accounted for 12 percent of all adoptees in those years. The aim was to lift the children out of poverty but also to assimilate them--almost all of their new families were white, and very few of the children were ever exposed to their Indian heritage. "The lack of health care and widespread poverty--those conditions existed," says Terry Cross, director of the National Indian Child Welfare Association in Portland, Oregon. "But they existed because of the failure of the federal government to provide for child welfare on reservations."

From 1958 to 1967 removing poor or neglected Indian children was federal policy, as the Bureau of Indian Affairs teamed up with the Child Welfare League of America to carry out the Indian Adoption Project. The CWLA channeled federal funds to private agencies to arrange the adoptions, though later on public agencies were also involved. According to the CWLA, under this program some 395 Native American children were taken from their natural families, mostly from tribes on reservations in the Dakotas and Montana, and placed in white homes, usually in the midwest. Of those children, 48 wound up with adoptive families in Illinois.

The project legitimized the practice, and individual states and other adoptive agencies removed thousands more children. "Through this project," says Shay Bilchik, the current president of the CWLA, now an umbrella organization for 1,100 public and private child-welfare groups, "BIA and CWLA actively encouraged states to continue and to expand the practice of 'rescuing' native children from their own culture, from their very families."

John was immediately separated from his brothers, and over the next two years he lived in eight different foster homes. He liked a few of the foster parents, but many were abusive. He remembers that one set of parents had obsessive rules for the children they'd taken in, among them a limitation on the amount of toilet paper each child could use. "We were allowed to use four squares--that was it," he says. "If they found out we were using more than that we were punished."

Punishment came in a variety of forms. The most disturbing, he says, was being made to drink a concoction intended to make them vomit. He remembers watching his foster mother mix hot water with mustard power and pepper. "It had a hideous smell--it would fill the entire room," he says. "But we had to drink it. The goal was to drink it without throwing up--because if you did throw up, you would then have to lick it up off the floor."

When John was removed from his eighth foster home, the most abusive one, he was diagnosed as "emotionally mentally handicapped." He was only seven years old.

His next foster home turned out to be his last: the Dalls were a loving family who cared for more than 65 foster children over the years and later adopted him. Yet the move was bittersweet. One of his younger brothers had been removed from the Dall family and would be sent to the abusive home John had just left.

Dall had finally found a supportive home, but he struggled outside of it. As he reached adolescence, he felt intensely isolated from his peers. He knew he was Native American, but he didn't know what that meant, didn't know which tribe he was from or what his cultural heritage was.

Many of his classmates assumed he was lying about being Native American: "They'd say, if you don't know what kind of Indian you are, how Indian could you really be?" He desperately wanted to project an image of a "real Indian," yet he had no idea how. "Making that effort, sometimes it blew up in your face," he says. "If you failed at anything in front of them, it was like, 'Well, that's typical.' On the other hand, if you succeeded, people came up to you and said things like 'Boy, you're a credit to your race.' It felt like a damned if you do, damned if you don't situation."

After high school, convinced he couldn't reclaim his Indian identity, he developed close relationships with people who weren't interested in his race or cultural background, including the woman he married. She was of Irish descent, but he says ethnicity "was never really an issue for us." He figured it was time to get on with things, to stop dwelling on what he'd never know.

By his late 20s, Dall had two children and was slowly realizing that even though he'd come to accept the void in his own identity, his children would likely be haunted by many of the same questions he'd had. "When you have children you start to think again along those same lines--well, what will you tell them?" he says. "They're going to want to know. A big concern of mine was when my children started to delve into my past and who I was, because inherently they were asking who they were. I had no idea what to tell them. Kids need something definite. I couldn't give them that kind of assurance, so I always felt a little weird answering those kinds of questions."

It was around the time his children started asking questions that the DCFS caseworker called. It turned out that the Ho-Chunk tribe knew Dall had ended up in the state child-welfare system because his mother had enrolled her sons with the tribe before she'd passed away. The caseworker asked Dall a list of questions. "I answered yes to everything she asked," he says. "Then she said, 'You have to call these people in Wisconsin.'"

Dall was stunned by the call. He'd long suspected that his mother, whom he barely remembered, was dead. And suddenly he had a critical key to his identity. He called a few of the tribal elders, then decided to make a trip to see them.

The Ho-Chunks, or "people of the big voice," are a Wisconsin tribe of 6,000, most of whom live in an area between Madison and Black River Falls. They're one of the few tribes living together on land that isn't part of a federally subsidized reservation, and because of their successful casino operations in Baraboo and Majestic Pines, their community is thriving.

Before Dall made the trip all his buried self-doubts and insecurities resurfaced. "The big question was where do I come from?" he says. "Once that was answered, that opens up the floodgates to a whole other set of questions. Will I be accepted? Am I going to make new friends? Are they going to like me? It's the new kid coming into the new school thing."

Driving north to Black River Falls, Dall grappled with every imaginable answer to those questions. As the landscape changed from open pastures to rolling hills and pine forests, he felt he was somehow nearing home.

When he entered the community center for the first time and extended handshakes and hellos, the tribal members seemed happy to welcome a lost brother, but they also seemed wary. "They didn't know how to trust me," he says, "because of the way that I speak, the way I carry myself--it's different than the way that they do."

Dall quickly learned the importance of showing humility and deference. "If you come into the community asking too many questions, if you come in with too many opinions, you come in with too many ideas, they'll have the tendency to freeze you out, because you are imposing yourself on them," he says. "In a traditional way of thinking, that isn't what you are supposed to do. You're supposed to come in and be a part of the community--make decisions with the community, move along with the community. You're not supposed to advance yourself beyond that. The community will advance itself, but it will do it as a whole. Indian people have never done anything for the sprint. They do it for the long haul--generation after generation. It's about sustainability."

Fortunately for Dall, he was embraced by the tribal elders, who steered him through his initiation into tribal culture. "They saw me for much more than what I thought I was," he says. "I didn't have the self-confidence I have today, and I owe that to them, the individuals I met at the beginning, 12 years ago. They put me on the path and said, this is how things should be done. I was very comfortable with that for some reason."

The elders introduced Dall to people who'd known his family. He learned that even though his mother had moved to Chicago, she took her sons back to Wisconsin nearly every weekend for visits with the extended family. One woman who knew his mother told him that when he was an infant she'd often taken care of him at her home. She remembered him well. "She came up to me, felt my arms, and said, 'Wow, you've really gotten big,'" he says. "I was like 30 years old, but that meant a lot to me at the time I heard it--to meet someone who actually knew who I was as a baby."

One elder in particular, Annie Lym, made an indelible mark on Dall's life. She believed it was essential that he understand the symbolic as well as the practical meaning behind the traditions and ceremonies that were performed at Ho-Chunk gatherings. She would ask him to sit next to her, then give him a detailed description of what he was witnessing. When tribe members spoke the Ho-Chunk language she would often lean over and translate for him, though sometimes she insisted that they remain quiet so he could simply listen to the sound of the language. She stayed beside him during the green corn dance that ensures a good harvest, the "giveaway" ceremony that recognizes a turning point in someone's life, and the celebrations that mark an anniversary or a graduation. And she taught him about the tribe's clearly defined gender roles.

Another elder told Dall that for many years tribal members had left their homes each summer and gone to pick cranberries in the bogs of northern Wisconsin. In 1963, when Dall was only two, he'd been taken to the bogs by his mother, and that summer a tremendous fire spread across the cranberry fields, destroying much of the crop in the region. He was relieved to learn that his recurring vision was of a real event. "That was nice, something as simple as that," he says. "That cleared up so much for me. Suddenly I felt redeemed."

Dall, who's never learned anything about his father, not even his name, always wondered what had become of the brothers he hadn't seen since the night they were removed from their mother's home, but he didn't know how to find them. He asked the tribe to notify him if anyone inquired about his whereabouts and soon got a call telling him that his brothers were trying to get in touch with him. He also learned that someone else was looking for him too, a younger half sister he never knew he had.

He scheduled a reunion with his younger brothers, who still lived in Chicago. He says that when they showed up at his front door he invited them in with a gesture but found himself at a loss for words.

He smiled as his kids fearlessly offered big hugs to the uncles they were meeting for the first time, but he could only extend his hand to them. "We eventually got around to giving each other hugs," he says, "but it wasn't right off the bat. We had to kind of size each other up first. My brothers responded to my kids a lot better than they responded to me. Their response to each other was closer to the fairy-tale response I wanted."

Yet Dall remembers that day mostly for the way it changed the way he saw himself. His brothers took a look around in those first moments and saw what he'd built for himself in his adult life. He saw himself as someone who'd survived, but his brothers saw him as someone who'd prospered. "I have my own home, a wonderful wife, two cars, a dog, two turtles--it's kind of like the American-dream family," he says. "Almost in unison they said to me, 'Wow, it's nice to see that one of us made it.' They were happy for me, but at the same time I began to feel bad for them. I began to realize that what I had--even though I was living paycheck to paycheck, struggling like everyone else--to them, they were like, wow, you made it. It was a whole different perspective. I had to reevaluate myself at that point. It clarified a lot of things for me. It was a major growing-up experience. For the first time in my life, for real, I was somebody's big brother."

The reunion didn't prove to be the new beginning Dall had hoped for. He's spoken with his brothers only a few times since. He doesn't want to elaborate, saying only that they continue to deal with "issues."

Dall thinks that the stability he found with his adoptive family allowed him to leave behind the shame commonly felt by Native Americans who were in the foster-care system. He thinks that stability also allowed him to be open to a reunion with his tribe. His brothers, he says, "haven't made the same cultural connections that I have. I think eventually they will come around and make them and talk to people and be open, but until then they are caught up in their own little worlds, worlds of hurt and shame. Until they are able to get past that, that is where they'll stay."

Dall was able to forge a very different relationship with his half sister, who's nearly 20 years younger then he is. She'd lived with their mother until she died, then moved in with family members who were part of the Ho-Chunk nation in Wisconsin.

The first conversation Dall had with his sister on the phone resembled a job interview, but in subsequent talks they warmed up to each other. Finally he went to visit her in Wisconsin. He says a string of bad experiences had made her wary of Indian men and she worried that he would be another "taker"--wanting something from her, then moving on and leaving her behind. But she soon realized that he simply wanted a relationship with his sister, and she discovered that she wanted her older brother in her life. "It has much less to do with Indian life and more to do with family life," he says. "We are extremely close."

One day the tribal elders told Dall that his maternal grandfather was living in the small town of Dalton, Georgia, and that he was ill but had been holding on in hopes he could be reunited with his grandson. Dall packed up the car, put his two boys in the backseat, and headed south. "That was interesting, telling my kids, 'We're going to meet choka,'" he says, using the Ho-Chunk word for grandfather. "They were totally ecstatic."

Dall was more apprehensive than his sons. "To them it was like, wow," he says. "He was their choka, and they swarmed around him like they knew him from a thousand years ago. Me, I went in there with an adult mind-set--I introduced myself, very formal, and slowly got to know this guy."

For four days and nights Dall's grandfather did most of the talking. He told Dall stories about his family and his tribe. He shared his memories of Dall as a little boy. "He took me through my entire life," Dall says, "up to the point where I was lost."

His grandfather also offered advice on nurturing relationships within the tribe and gave him insights into his new culture. And he gave Dall an Indian name. Dall won't reveal the name, but he says it's true to his character. Four months after the visit his grandfather passed away.

Removing Native American children from their homes was "essentially ethnocide," says John Low, a professor of Native American studies at the University of Chicago. "It's separating people from their culture, their communities, their relatives, their values, and placing them in limbo--in a world where they don't fit anywhere."

Carol Locust of the University of Arizona recently did a study of Native Americans who'd been removed from their families as children and placed in white homes. She received hundreds of initial responses, then chose a random sample of 20 to study in depth. She found that 19 of the 20 had moderate to severe psychological problems as a result of their upbringing, problems so similar she came up with a label for them: "split feather" syndrome. The problems included a sense of lost identity, a feeling of being intensely different or out of place, especially during adolescence, and the experience of being discriminated against. All 20 adoptees had failed at least one grade in school and reported having difficulty with intimate relationships, 18 said they thought about their natural parents, families, and tribes more often than their adoptive families, 13 had had problems with drugs or alcohol, and 3 had been in prison.

Many of the adoptees reported that they learned differently than white children. Most excelled in math but struggled in reading and social studies, and the study suggests that they might have formed different cognitive patterns before they were adopted. Several respondents said things like "There were always too many words. I learned better through my eyes."

According to the American Indian Policy Center, the removal of Indian children from their natural families reached its zenith in 1974, when a quarter to a third of very young Native American children were placed in foster care or adoptive homes. "No matter how well-intentioned and how squarely in the mainstream this was at the time, it was wrong, it was hurtful, and it reflected a kind of bias that surfaces feelings of shame as we look back," Shay Bilchik of the CWLA told those who attended the National Indian Child Welfare Association's annual conference in 2001. "While adoption was not as wholesale as the infamous Indian schools, in terms of lost heritage it was even more absolute. I deeply regret the fact that CWLA's active participation gave credibility to such a hurtful, biased, and disgraceful course of action. As we look at these events with today's perspective, we see them as both catastrophic and unforgivable."

Indian activism in the early 70s led to passage of the Indian Child Welfare Act of 1978, which states, "There is no resource that is more vital to the continued existence and integrity of Indian tribes than their children." Low says, "ICWA was really recognition of the debilitating effects this removal was having--and not just on children but also on Indian communities and the Indian nation."

The act stipulated that tribal courts had ultimate jurisdiction if Indian children had to be taken from their biological parents and that the goal was to keep them in their own communities, preferably with extended family members, tribal members, or foster parents from another tribe. It was an explicit acknowledgment that the preservation of Native American culture, heritage, and communities was important. "Implementation of parents' rights and child rights under ICWA has been enormous," says Low. "Parents feel that they are not under threat of losing children, they feel that they've got recourse, they feel that someone will listen to them--with some clout and with the law behind them. So it's been a lot of empowerment. It's also been an opportunity for families and tribes to connect. A lot of times a lot of bridges are being restored--people are being much more connected with their culture through the process of working with their tribe to get united or stop the separation of children. And it's been empowering to the children as well."

Nonetheless, says Dale Francisco of the Chicago-based Native American Foster Parents Association, "In many situations the law was being ignored--because people had no idea it existed." Even in Chicago, where 32,000 people listed themselves as Native American in the 2000 census and 73,000 said they were biracial with one race being Native American, social workers weren't always aware of the act or its implications. "In some ways," says Robert Mindell, who's been with DCFS more than 20 years, "it was invisible to the child-welfare system." In an attempt to ensure that more people understand the act and the issues surrounding it, Loyola University's School of Social Work--working with DCFS and Indian social service groups, including the Native American Foster Parents Association--recently developed a curriculum to teach the principles of ICWA to people who want to work in the child-welfare field or are already in it.

"I got started late," says Dall. "I lost a lot of years. But now I figure I'll be learning new things about myself and my people until the day I die."

For the past several years Dall has been working in the same neighborhood where he grew up, running the local social service office for the Ho-Chunk nation, a nondescript, sparsely furnished room on the ground floor of a dilapidated building at 4941 N. Milwaukee. He's paid by the tribe to work with a couple of volunteers helping the 230 Ho-Chunk people living in Illinois--most of them in the Chicago area--find housing and jobs and notifying them of gatherings.

Dall says the job helps him stay connected to his tribe and his heritage. "I'm realizing now, at 43 years of age," he says, "there are no accepted unknowns in my life, there is no need to have black holes."

In September, Dall was elected to the office of tribal legislator, giving him a key role in shaping the policies of the Ho-Chunk nation. "It's an honor," he says. "The legislative position carries with it a lot of responsibility." The work requires him to travel frequently, which will keep him from his family--he now has two daughters as well as two sons. "It definitely makes it hard on us," he says, "but I have the chance to have a direct effect on my own children's future."

This past spring Dall participated in a powwow on Ho-Chunk land, and for the first time he took along his children. Powwows borrow customs from many different Indian nations, but the drum circle is a common tradition. He's fascinated by the idea of singing in rhythm with the drums, though he knows that it's a difficult skill to learn and that he'll never be very good at it. He says he came to it too late. But the disappointment in his voice disappears when he says that his children are already great drum singers and his youngest daughter is seen as one of the best singers in Chicago.

Dall's wife, Kelly, supports her children's interest in their tribal heritage, though she hasn't felt accepted when she's gone to powwows and other gatherings. "They don't like Caucasians too much," she says, adding that it's different with her children. Her youngest daughter, she says, "understands their way--she grew up within the American Indian culture. I'm proud of her. She favors being American Indian more, but she knows she's Irish too."

Dall says that watching his children grow up knowing their heritage has taken away the sting of his own loss. "It's neat to see my kids go into the Indian community, go up to the elders, and be totally accepted--and be totally accepting of the things they are being told," he says. "They know that's who they are. There is no odd learning curve. They dive right into it."

People still sometimes ask Dall whether he's a real Indian. "In my younger days that would have been a major issue for me," he says. "Now it is just an accepted part of explaining who I am. What is nice about it is I can explain who I am, where I came from. This is a unique story for me because it's my story, but in Indian country it's a common story."

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Paul L. Merideth.

Add a comment