By Amy Silverman
By Olivia LaVecchia
By Monica Alonzo and Stephen Lemons
By Chris Parker
By Michael Lacey
By Weston Phippen
Late one afternoon in February 1991, Thurza Altaha and her 16-year-old daughter drove from the Fort Apache Indian Reservation to the Indian hospital in Phoenix. For the teenager, it would be a one-way trip back to Anglo society. For the mother, the trip was an acknowledgment that her only daughter would never be an Apache.
A half-hour after the mother and daughter arrived in Phoenix, Lalita Altaha was reunited with Nadine and Normand DesRochers, the non-Indian couple who had raised her from the time she was five months old until she was 13 years old. In 1988, at the conclusion of a blistering, cross-cultural custody battle that had consumed the better part of ten years, the court ordered the DesRochers to return the child to her biological mother.
At the time, many who viewed the court's action as cruel and unrealistic were regarded as insensitive clods or as outright racists.
Those who agreed with the court's decision believed, as Thurza Altaha did, that the 13-year-old would discover her roots and become a proud Apache; that she would bond with her Indian relatives, learn the Apache language, experience the rite of passage known as the Sunrise Ceremony and become a happy member of the tribe that occupies 1.6 million acres in central Arizona.
But it never happened.
Lalita lasted only two years on the Fort Apache reservation, just long enough for her Apache mother to realize that her daughter would never fit in.
One night in February 1991, Thurza Altaha went to her daughter's room and declared, "You'd better pack your belongings. You're going back to your mom and dad tomorrow,'" Lalita says.
"It was the only time she ever referred to Nadine and Normand DesRochers as my mom and dad," Lalita adds.
Thurza Altaha called the Anglo couple she had fought in court for a decade and told them they could have Lalita back. Thurza would meet them at the Indian hospital in Phoenix to return the girl. She set down three conditions: no lawyers, no news reporters, and don't cut her hair.
It was, at best, an unusual outcome to a case that many considered strange and heartless--strange because, at the height of the controversy, no one bothered to ask Lalita where she wanted to live; heartless because no one in the state, tribal or federal court system would do anything about Lalita's desperate cries for help.
Lalita, who turned 18 last December, has been calling the DesRochers mom and dad since she learned to speak. As far as she is concerned, they have been her parents since the day she joined their Tucson household. The DesRochers raised Lalita in the only world they knew: the white man's world. And that, says Thurza, made a reunification with her daughter impossible.
@body:Thurza Johnson (she has assumed her maiden name) stands in the doorway of her small house on the Fort Apache reservation, looking out toward the green fields that descend to the White River. It is a clear day in early June, an idyllic afternoon in the White Mountains, but Thurza is tense and wary.
"I believe in the Lord, and this is what the Lord willed," she says, expressing a view that seems a little odd from the mouth of a traditional Apache. "That's why I don't want to talk about it; it's all in the Lord's hands."
But Thurza does talk about it--the bizarre and complex adoption battle that a few years ago focused national attention on the plight of her only daughter, the soft-spoken girl who found herself at the center of a debate about the survival of a culture she knew nothing about.
"The Indian world and the white man's world are two different worlds," Thurza says. "They don't mix. I tried my best with my daughter, but she was not happy. She was too much like the white man, you know, in her head. I said to her, 'You're an Indian! Just look at yourself!' But she could not be happy, because she was too long in the white world."
According to court documents, when Thurza was 24 and drinking heavily, she became pregnant by Lowell Altaha, the Apache man she loved. Lowell, however, had a problem: He was already married to someone else. Thurza says Lowell's mother-in-law, who lived in Whiteriver, was a witch, the kind of witch that can make things happen to other people. Lowell's mother-in-law didn't want Thurza to have the baby, and threatened to "witch" the child if she did, Thurza says. Nowadays, Thurza doesn't like to talk about those old beliefs. She is a born-again Christian and a reformed alcoholic, and no longer fears witchcraft. But when she was pregnant with Lalita, she believed. "The witches will use a lot of different things to hurt somebody. They might send a snake to a person's house, or they might witch the car that a person is riding in to make the car not work right, so that there'll be an accident. If the medicine man or the medicine lady comes up to you and they walk around you, then you won't live that long afterward." But Thurza, destitute, alcoholic and generally down on her luck, did have the baby, whom she named Lalita. About the time the child was born, a Tucson-based Christian child-placement agency, the House of Samuel, was active on the Fort Apache reservation. It had placed several Apache children in foster homes around the state, and kept several more at its facility in Tucson. To some tribal officials, the agency people were carpetbaggers. But Thurza, feeling herself unable to care for her baby and fearful of her mother-in-law's curse, brought Lalita to the House of Samuel in Tucson. When she was five months old, Lalita was placed with the DesRochers, an act that marked the beginning of a struggle that did not end until the day Thurza returned her daughter to the DesRochers in 1991.