RESERVATION NOT ACCEPED

THE COURT RETURNED LALITA ALTAHA TO HER NATURAL MOTHER, AND A LIFE OF UNHAPPINESS AT FORT APACHE

In retrospect, it seems doubtful that Allen knew what he was getting himself into when he came to Arizona in February 1989. That March, after he'd been reprimanded by his fellow commissioners for immersing himself in controversy, he said he had gone to the reservation simply to ask a pudgy adolescent a single question: Has anyone ever asked you where you wished to live? Allen had been briefed on the case by Goodfield, a contractor for the Civil Rights Commission who perceived the court's action as a gross miscarriage of justice.

Arthur, on the other hand, was baffled by the talk of injustice and the implication that the tribe, as she put it, "has done some terrible thing" to Lalita. "It was the Arizona Court of Appeals and not the tribal court that invalidated Lalita's adoption," she stresses. Furthermore, the court did not return the child to an anonymous, disinterested institution. It returned her to her natural mother, who had been fighting for Lalita's return for several years.

To Arthur, Allen's behavior betrayed "a racially discriminatory attitude about Indian children, [a belief] that somehow it's okay to do this to an Indian child on an Indian reservation, whereas you wouldn't find such conduct acceptable in middle-class white society."

Ironically, Allen agreed that Lalita was being treated differently because she was an Indian, and that was precisely what bothered him. If the case were handled as an ordinary custody battle--which is what it was when all the ethnocentric banter was set aside--Lalita's wishes would have been taken into consideration, he said.

But in this case, he found, racial issues would not go away, and the question had to be dealt with: Was the happiness of one child, who said she didn't want to live with her natural parents on a reservation, subordinate to the survival of a culture she knew nothing about? A network reporter challenged Allen to respond to the Apaches' view that Lalita was an Apache child, she belonged with them and they could take care of their own. Allen got right to the point, proving by his indelicate choice of words that he had passionate convictions but little experience in the world of Indian politics:

"It doesn't matter that people are Indian or non-Indian. . . ," he said. "No American belongs to anyone. Slavery is not a part of our constitutional order, and the idea that Indian children belong in some vague way to a community and not to themselves is an idea that is totally inconsistent with anything an American ought to believe."
The Apaches, of course, disagreed. Many Indians feel that, no matter how well-intentioned Anglo society may be, one more child adopted away from the tribe becomes one more child who will not perpetuate the Apache heritage.

Hugh Hegyi, the lawyer who represented Thurza, puts it this way:
"Pretty clearly, the people [Apaches] consider it [knowledge of Apache traditions] part of their cultural survival. . . . One of the things that's happened here is the girl . . . has grown up not knowing Apache, not knowing any of the Apache ceremonies, not knowing anything about Apache history, knowing nothing about her relatives, which are very important in Apache culture. It's a real tragedy."
@rule:
@body:In the intervening years, Lowell Altaha divorced his first wife and married Thurza. For a while, they lived with Lalita on the reservation at Cedar Creek. Thurza and Lowell subsequently divorced. Before the divorce, they filed a $3 million civil suit against the DesRochers for emotional distress caused by custodial interference. The suit was eventually dropped.

After Lalita returned to the reservation, the DesRochers lost contact with her for approximately two years. However, despite the court order preventing them from contacting her, the girl got in touch with her foster brother, David--with whom the DesRochers were living. Sometimes, she called her brother collect during her lunch hour at school, and often she wrote letters--mailed by her school friends--that her brother shared with Nadine and Normand.

In 1989, tribal attorney Arthur said she'd been told by the principal of Lalita's school that the girl had been making progress until the Allen-Goodfield visit, and that school officials were convinced that, in time, she would adjust fully, if only the news media and people like Allen and Goodfield would leave her alone.

Eventually, the media forgot about Lalita, but she never adjusted to her new life on the reservation.

"I hated it there," she says during a visit to Tucson from her home in Durango, Colorado. "There was no love between me and Thurza. She didn't like me. She didn't want me there. We fought constantly, and once I punched her back. And then, one day, I couldn't handle it anymore. I mean, I was treated like an outcast by most of the other kids. They all spoke Apache, and they made fun of me and said I was too white. And Thurza was always cutting me down, so one day, I just started tearing the house apart. "It was soon after that that Thurza started asking me odd questions, like, 'Is there a high school in Durango?' and 'Do you think they'd mind if you went there?' And soon after that, she let me go home to my parents. "Once I got home, it was like I'd never left. It was just hugs and love and understanding. With Thurza, it was just a void."
After moving to Durango, Lalita Altaha had her name legally changed to Lita DesRochers because, she says, "I consider Norm and Nadine my parents." The courts, she said, should have realized that. "What the judge did was very wrong. If, by chance, this happens again, they really have to look closely. What they could do to a kid is terrible. They made all kinds of decisions without ever asking me. If it comes up again, they should ask the kid, 'Where do you want to live?' They didn't ask me, 'Do you want to live with Thurza or the DesRochers?' "Bill Allen [of the Civil Rights Commission] was the only one who asked me that. For that short moment that he was there with Dr. Goodfield, they were the ones giving me a life jacket, because I felt like a prisoner. . . ."

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