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.
In the beginning, Thurza was apparently grateful to the DesRochers for taking care of Lalita. Between 1975 and 1977, she wrote them several affectionate letters asking about her daughter and thanking them for keeping her. Evidently still fearful of rumors that someone from the tribe might try to harm Lalita, she wrote in a letter to the DesRochers in September 1976, "Don't let anybody come visit her or take her away from you unless I say so."
Two years after they took Lalita into their household, and after hearing of various hostile confrontations between former Apache Tribal Court judge Anna Early and the House of Samuel about foster care and the adoption of Apache children, the DesRochers decided to begin adoption proceedings. The family, said Nadine DesRochers, was suffering from, among other things, being on an emotional yo-yo.
"We told Thurza, 'We can't do this any longer.' Lita was 2 years old, and she only knew us. We said, 'We're going to give her back to you, or let us adopt her,' because it was hurting the baby. In 1977, we moved to Texas, and she [Thurza] signed the papers."
When the DesRochers made their brief move to Texas, Thurza was married to Hubert Goclanney, also a White Mountain Apache. Lowell Altaha was still on the reservation with his first wife. The DesRochers had legal advice to the effect that, with Thurza's consent, they could adopt the baby in Texas.
According to the DesRochers, all of the appropriate papers were signed, and it was explained to Thurza that she was signing away her parental rights, though Thurza says she didn't understand what she was reading and that she never heard the word "adoption."
The document she signed is titled "Affidavit of Relinquishment of Parental Rights by Mother." In a sworn statement several years later, Thurza said that when she signed the affidavit, she thought she was merely giving the DesRochers temporary custody. The last paragraph of the relinquishment document could have been written in Greek, as far as Thurza's ability to understand it went. The paragraph read:
"I waive the right to issuance, service and return of citation upon me in a suit to terminate the parent-child relationship between the child and me and any other suit affecting the parent-child relationship between the child and me."
In plain English, the paragraph meant that the DesRochers could proceed with the adoption of Lalita without notifying Thurza.
The DesRochers dispute Thurza's claim that the document was not explained to her. Normand DesRochers says that, on the day Thurza signed it, he arrived at her Dallas apartment and spent four hours talking to her husband, Hubert (they've since divorced), while waiting for her to come home from work.
"Hubert had a little bit of college, and when Thurza came home, he said, 'I'm going to read this to you, so you'll understand it,' and then he read it in English. Then he turned to me and said, 'I hope you'll excuse me, but now I'm going to translate it to Apache for her, because I want to be sure she understands what she's doing,' and he read it in Apache."
Nevertheless, Thurza was right about one thing: Nowhere in the document was the word "adoption" used. Soon after Thurza signed the papers, the DesRochers returned to Tucson with Lalita, feeling, no doubt, a great sense of relief.
They believed their problems had finally come to an end. They didn't know that the problems had just begun, and that Thurza and the tribe were going to wage a tenacious war to correct what they regarded as fundamental exploitation and injustice.
@body:"On January 17, 1977," the Arizona Court of Appeals wrote in its 1982 review of the case, "[the DesRochers] filed a joint petition in Texas seeking to terminate Thurza's parental rights and to adopt Lalita. Thurza was never notified of the proceedings, and did not participate in them." On March 1, 1977, the adoption was completed.
When Thurza finally became aware of what had transpired, she filed a habeas corpus action, in effect accusing the DesRochers of stealing her child by legal scheming and of exploiting her ignorance. Ultimately, the Pima County Superior Court avoided those issues, and simply invalidated the adoption on the grounds that Texas did not have the jurisdiction to grant the adoption in the first place. Former Superior Court judge Jack T. Arnold ruled that the DesRochers never established residency in Texas, that there was ample evidence that the DesRochers never intended to live there and, therefore, that the State of Texas did not have the power to grant the adoption.
The DesRochers appealed and lost, and the case was turned over to the White Mountain Apache Tribal Court.
The couple could have sued in tribal court for custody of Lalita, but chose not to. "What chance would we stand?" asks Nadine DesRochers. "The head judge in the tribal court was Anna Early, and we knew she was already against us."
Since there were no other challengers, the tribal court simply ordered Lalita to the custody of her Apache mother. "In the fall of 1982, they [the DesRochers] were supposed to turn her [Lalita] over, and that's when they took a powder," the couple's Tucson-based lawyer, Leighton Rockafellow, says. Nadine DesRochers admits that the family moved frequently to prevent tribal authorities from taking the child back to the reservation. According to a report prepared by the Pima County Adult Probation Department, "T[he DesRochers'] motivation for running was fear that [Lalita] would be killed [by Lowell Altaha's in-laws]. They felt that every day she was not found would be another day she would be alive."
For nearly six years, the DesRochers stayed on the road, living in campgrounds and working wherever Normand, a plasterer, could pick up an odd job. Finally, in 1987, their lawyer told them that the FBI was about to get involved in the investigation and the pursuit, and that the DesRochers would be wise to turn themselves in before matters went any further.
In December 1987, the Pima County Attorney's Office filed charges of custodial interference against the DesRochers. The DesRochers turned themselves in, and in January 1988, they returned Lalita to the reservation. That April, they were sentenced to three years' probation and ordered not to have any contact with the girl. @rule:
@body:In 1988, the battle for possession of the then-13-year-old child was seen by some Apaches and their supporters as a battle for the survival of an aboriginal culture that the white man had been trying to destroy for more than a century. It was seen, as well, as a case in which a white family had tricked a poor Apache woman into giving away her baby, and the feeling was that they should be punished and the child should be repatriated. It was the least the white man could do, some felt.
There is no indication that Judge Arnold took any of these philosophical notions into account in 1982, but when Arnold invalidated the DesRochers' adoption of Lalita, certainly Apache partisans believed the white man had finally done the right thing.
"The judge could have decided this case any way he wanted to," says the DesRochers' lawyer, Leighton Rockafellow, "and I think he thought he was doing the right thing by sending her back, because he felt she should know her roots. I don't think the reservation is a very good place to raise children, but I really think Judge Arnold felt he was doing what was best for the child."
Arnold, now retired, recalls, "It was a really tough case for us, emotionally, but a judge can't let his personal feelings get in the way. The law was very clear in that case. It would be very easy if a judge could just ask a little girl, 'Where do you want to live?', and that's the end of it. "I love kids, and I might have done things differently if I went on my personal feelings, but a judge can't do that. You have to apply the law evenly, or you end up with chaos, and in this case, the law was clear, and I must have been right, because it was upheld under appeal."
As a result, Lalita was taken from the only family she knew and returned to her biological mother on the Fort Apache reservation. The child, iron-willed and articulate, did not get off to a good start. "You're not my mom," she told Thurza. "Nadine is my mom!" But at that point, all the theorists and partisans were gone, and Lalita was alone with a mother she barely knew, isolated in a rural village on the reservation.
At the time, no one could dispute the court's decision: It was legally correct, though narrow in focus, and most critics were left to bellow about the cruelty of wrenching an adolescent from a family that had loved and cared for her since infancy and suddenly plunging her into life on an Indian reservation. Some who sympathized with the Apache viewpoint were not insensitive to that perspective, but ultimately, they said, it was the big picture that was most important, and in the big picture, the welfare of one child was not as important as the survival of an entire culture, and the fate of the child and the fate of the culture were inextricably linked.
@body:Literally and figuratively, it's a long way from the flower-filled meadows of the Fort Apache Indian Reservation to Washington, D.C. With that in mind, there was a temptation to applaud William B. Allen, who, in 1989, was chairman of the United States Civil Rights Commission. When Allen heard about Lalita's case from a flamboyant psychologist named Barry Goodfield, Allen flew to the reservation to see Lalita for himself.
Allen was in a position to do something about an unjust situation, and so it seemed commendable that he would take the time to travel to such a remote location for what seemed like such an obscure case.
But the Apaches on the reservation did not applaud. Allen, along with Goodfield and a film crew from NBC-TV, arrived on the reservation unannounced, intercepted Lalita at school and interviewed her in a rental car while driving the 25 miles that separate Whiteriver and Cedar Creek, where she was living at the time.
Lalita told these officials she was an "outcast" on the reservation, that she was basically a prisoner and that she wanted to go home to her Tucson family. Allen and Goodfield tried to comfort her by telling her she had rights, and that they would bring her case to the attention of others in Washington. Then they went home.
Claudeen Bates Arthur, a Navajo who was, at the time, the Apaches' tribal attorney, was outraged by Allen's actions, and all but called him a racist and suggested he resign. Back in Washington, Allen's fellow commissioners rebuked him and forced him to send letters of apology to the tribe; and the White House, the FBI and at least two congressional committees made him the subject of detailed investigations, which were reported on the front page of the New York Times.
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."
@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.
If you like this story, consider signing up for our email newsletters.
SHOW ME HOW
"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. . . ."
Allen kept in touch with Lalita after his term on the Civil Rights Commission expired and he returned to California to take a teaching position at Claremont College. After Lalita returned to the DesRochers, he visited her in Durango and took the family out to breakfast.
Earlier this year, when Lalita graduated from Durango High School, Allen sent her a dozen roses. For better or worse, Thurza was correct about one thing: Lalita feels no connection to her Apache roots.
"To me," Lalita says, "Apache is just a word. I don't know that much about it. I always knew they were there, and I knew I was Indian--it's obvious--but I never felt any connection to the tribe. Before all this happened, I did have a somewhat normal life with my mom and dad, and I wish they [the Apaches] had just left me alone.