TULSA, Okla. — Schoolchildren filled a dimly lit room. Government agents banged on the door and rushed in. The children were rounded up. They were plucked from their families, their customs. Their hair was cut. They were placed in new homes or sent to boarding schools meant to assimilate them into a less savage culture.
It’s a story widely told in Oklahoma’s Indian Country. A museum exhibit in Tahlequah, the Cherokee Nation’s capital, once re-created that fear of being taken.
The influence of American Indian tribes runs deep here. Some road signs are emblazoned with Cherokee words. Some children send text messages to each other or play on iPads in the native language.
In the century since Indian children were removed because of government policies, tribes have made strides to restore their traditions. At the center of the resurgence: children who value their roots, no matter how little Indian blood might run through their veins.
The tribes thought the times of losing their children had ended. That’s why the recent adoption of 3-year-old Veronica, a member of the Cherokee Nation — an adoption that some here said was achieved through deception — has the Indian community talking about the old days again.
Their stance is matched by the pleas of Matt and Melanie Capobianco, who felt wronged when Veronica was taken from them. She’s their daughter, they said, and they want her home on James Island.
The custody dispute has become so much more. Though others have stakes in its outcome, the squabble has pitted the people of two states that are 1,000 miles but worlds apart.
Most Oklahomans understand the Cherokees’ cry, why Veronica matters so much. Their license plate says “Native America.” Their state is where Indians settled when others didn’t want them.
Losing Veronica to South Carolina, a state with one tribe compared to their 39, would be deflating to the spirit of tribal resurgence.
But many of the people who have vented conspiracy theories on Facebook, Twitter and news websites know little about the legal controversy that started it all: the Indian Child Welfare Act, the U.S. government’s attempt to make good on the old policy of assimilation.
In the town where Veronica lived for more than a year with her father, Dusten Brown, ask the video-store owner who rented children’s movies to him or the neighbor who saw the little girl steer her battery-powered toy car in circles around a tree in the front yard, and they won’t profess any knowledge of the ICWA.
It’s the Cherokee heritage that many people here profess to have that drives their opinion. It’s that emotional argument, to keep Veronica with her own flesh and blood, that has galvanized support for her birth father.
But since the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that the ICWA wasn’t on Brown’s side, the Capobiancos have had the upper legal hand. They won finalization of the adoption in South Carolina and, after political statements and a court hearing in Oklahoma last week, came to a mediation agreement likely to give them access to Veronica.
But it hasn’t stopped Oklahoman Indians from hoping, pleading for the Capobiancos to leave Veronica where she is.
If the couple gets custody of the girl through the mediation process, whether she stays enrolled in the Cherokee Nation will be up to them.
If she leaves this state, some said she’ll hear the call of home and, someday, return.
If the Capobiancos were to give in and give up their quest, though, they would be giving up the only child they ever knew as their own.
‘In her heart’
In January 2012, less than two weeks after Brown got custody of the daughter he had never met, Veronica sat in a chair at a community center in Bartlesville, where she was born. This time, she was 2.
The weekly gathering of children from several tribes teaches native customs and tongues.
She wore a blue skirt with a pink ribbon. Strapped to her legs were rattles that Jason Jones of the Yuchi Indians made from cans emptied of their juice and filled with rocks.
For a second, Veronica was glued to her seat as children started doing the stomp dance, a spiritual tradition usually reserved for family and friends.
Then her face lit up. She stood and started shuffling her feet around the LED lights of an electric fire. She waved her hands as if fanning the flames.
Most children are standoffish at their first stomp dance, but to Jones, it looked like Veronica had been doing it since the day she was born.
Traci DeWitt, 33, a friend of Brown’s, was mesmerized: The child seemed happier than she would have been at Disney World.
Though Veronica was said to be 3/256th Indian, some with 10 times more Cherokee blood don’t get these opportunities, DeWitt knew.
“Her little feet were just going steady,” DeWitt said. “She had the beat in her heart.”
But to say the move to Oklahoma was a seamless switch for Veronica wouldn’t be right. When Chrissi Nimmo went to meet her, the bubbly, outgoing girl the Capobiancos knew was shy and quiet.
She didn’t show her distress. She wasn’t awakened by nightmares. She didn’t throw crying fits. She didn’t need counseling.
These days, Nimmo keeps a bag full of tiny socks affixed with plastic beads. Veronica’s grandmother, Alice Brown, had made them for the girl when she was an infant in South Carolina, but Nimmo said the Capobiancos wouldn’t take them. Nimmo keeps them as a symbol of Veronica’s past that could be forgotten if she leaves.
They sit in her office near the tribe’s courthouse in Tahlequah. Boxes of files stuffed with documents about Veronica’s case fill a corner of the room.
As assistant attorney general of the Cherokee Nation, Nimmo’s only job today is ensuring that Veronica stays here. In Veronica, Nimmo now sees the same cute, smart, sassy little person who left South Carolina. But she also sees a girl who has become a battle cry for the tribe.
On Labor Day weekend, if she’s still around, Veronica might find herself at a powwow in Tahlequah meant to celebrate the signing of the Cherokee Constitution.
More than 100,000 Cherokees nationwide will see traditional performances, buy tribal artwork and baskets, eat the same food that their ancestors did.
The celebration pays homage to the tribe’s strength. It’s the largest tribal nation in the country.
It also pays tribute to the past, when the Cherokees were driven from the Deep South on the “Trail of Tears.”
But on this Signing Day, they’ll be saluting Veronica too.
“This is not just about the Cherokee Nation,” Nimmo said. “All of Indian Country is upset because they thought this stopped. It’s an Indian child being taken away.”
Brown’s and the tribe’s stubbornness in this legal fight has much to do with their history.
In the Cherokee Nation museum, Nimmo pointed to a quote on the wall. It was from 1832, when Supreme Court Chief Justice John Marshall ruled that Georgia’s policy of removing Cherokees was unconstitutional. But President Andrew Jackson ignored Marshall, and the Cherokees were forced westward to Oklahoma.
The Cherokees and Brown have adopted Jackson’s defiance and turned around his words as their own cry.
“Well, John Marshall has made his decision,” the quote reads, “now let him enforce it.”
Call of home
The rolling hills of Tahlequah flatten during the journey 90 miles northward to Nowata.
Windmills atop hills are replaced with oil pumps in open fields where cattle graze. Bails of hay are left out to dry during the unusually rainy summer.
Travelers pass Muskogee, Broken Arrow, Mohawk Park and some of the Cherokee Nation’s eight casinos. Shelves in a convenience store are stocked with Indian figurines and blankets.
Just outside Nowata, where more than 3,000 people live, Brown’s parents tend a farm. They keep ducks, geese and horses. It’s where Brown lived when he brought Veronica here. She named most of the animals.
Brown eventually moved into a freshly remodeled house about three miles away.
It’s near the downtown, where he and his wife, Robin, would rent movies at the Star Video Superstore. The last two times he came, Brown rented “Tinker Bell” and “Dolphin Tale” for Veronica and “Real Steel” for himself.
Down the street, past the rawhide leather shop, a wall mural shows an Indian in a headdress silhouetted against the sun.
At the main intersection on a recent day, a man nodded to a pedestrian as he slowed the horse he was riding for a stop sign.
Sherrie Howell has lived here for 22 years and has owned the video store for three. Her only knowledge of Veronica and Brown comes from the weekly newspaper, the Nowata Star. The latest edition featured Brown’s jail mugshot and a five-sentence story about his arrest for not giving up Veronica.
Like most here, Howell said she has Cherokee blood. She’s not an enrolled citizen in the tribe, though, because she can’t trace her ancestors to the Dawes Rolls, a federally funded list of Cherokees who were allotted land when reservations were dissolved.
She pointed at a customer as she washed a storefront window. He’s a citizen but didn’t know much about the federal law that Brown used to get custody of Veronica.
“I don’t even know Dusten. I don’t even watch the news,” the 61-year-old man, Herman Miller, said. “I know it’s very important to keep someone with their family.”
Desiree Crawford and her 3-year-old daughter walked in, paid $20 in late fees and picked out some movies. Like the others, she didn’t know about the ICWA.
But when her daughter was born, the Cherokee citizen moved from Michigan to Nowata.
The town has little in the way of amenities. It has a Pizza Hut, a Subway and two dollar stores. A sign at the Silver Saddle motel urges guests to go to an office elsewhere in the city to check in.
But it has a Cherokee clinic and a community center. A full hospital is a half-hour away. Not far from Nowata, Copan offers a weeklong powwow that attracts members of all tribes every year.
Those things keep Crawford here.
“I think I’ve gone to powwows my whole life,” she said. “I’d miss that.”
As the local lore goes, Nowata was long ago blessed by the Cherokees, especially when it comes to deadly weather.
Though it’s not a hotspot for twisters, the city rests in Tornado Alley. Tornadoes aimed at Nowata twice this spring. One was a few miles to the south, another was just to the north when they veered away.
Both times, 48-year-old Lisa Buss saw the man who lives next door rush outside with his wife and daughter and pile into their storm shelter.
She had seen the man on occasion, waved and exchanged a “Hello.”
She had seen the little girl more often — driving her toy car under a shade tree, playing with her two “ankle-biter” dogs, splashing in the above-ground pool her father installed this summer.
To Buss, they were a normal, happy family. She didn’t know they were in the eye of a legal maelstrom until she saw their home on TV.
Now, she keeps up with Veronica’s case on Facebook.
The Cherokee citizen knows little about the ICWA, but like many, she moved here because of her heritage and the benefits, like free health care and college opportunities for her own daughter.
“I haven’t heard much about the story other than what he says,” Buss said. “But she’s pretty happy with him.”
Buss stood on her front porch and looked at the empty street. A dreamcatcher in her house swayed in the wind blowing through the open windows. In a yard down the road, a goat was tied to a tree as it munched on high grass.
“I’m usually sitting out here, and I can hear Veronica,” Buss said. “She’s always laughing.”
Among the crowds of Oklahomans they found themselves in last week, Matt and Melanie Capobianco were pariahs.
They came to speed along the legal process to get custody of their adoptive daughter. To them, it had been grinding slowly since a judge finalized Veronica’s adoption last month.
Their presence paid off. Oklahoma’s governor called for a compromise. A judge forced Brown to appear in a courtroom and negotiate one.
But their progress was met with resistance.
Dozens picketed outside the hotel where they stayed in downtown Tulsa. They told the couple to go home and leave Veronica here. They called the Capobiancos racists because they didn’t understand Veronica’s importance to the Cherokees.
The objectors were at the courthouse where a mediation deal was struck Friday. They stood along the sidewalk on a thoroughfare in downtown Tulsa on Saturday, prompting one motorist to blast Cherokee music on the way by.
Mention the Capobiancos, the state of South Carolina, its governor, its biggest newspaper, or the woman who gave birth to Veronica, and they struggle to say something nice.
The scrutiny baffled the Capobiancos. They said they never set out to attack the ICWA or American Indians. They didn’t buy Veronica either, as many of their critics here have alleged, they said. They’ve heard dollar amounts: $10,000, $50,000.
But a Charleston judge said the expenses they paid to Veronica’s birth mother during pregnancy were average. They’ve tried to tell people that, but they still see the signs: “Cherokee children not for sale.”
“We’re a little concerned for our safety,” Melanie Capobianco said as protesters and television news trucks gathered outside their hotel one day last week. “But we have to be brave for our daughter.”
They came across some who rooted for them.
When picketers lined up outside a Tahlequah courthouse Friday, 75-year-old Phyllis Wilfong shook her head and asked where the Capobiancos’ supporters were.
She talked about her grandfather, a full-blooded member of the Eastern Band of Cherokees in North Carolina. She has lived in Tahlequah, though, for two decades. She has seen the poverty that some live in, and she envisions the opportunity that Veronica’s adoptive parents could offer.
“I don’t know Brown or his family,” she said. “I just know there are adoptive parents who raised her and love her.”
Like any visitor to Oklahoma, the Capobiancos have seen Indian tribes’ importance.
They found themselves last week in a courtroom with Brown and his family for the first time since their case was heard in Washington. Neither would say what words were exchanged.
But after months of dueling legal maneuvers, media interviews and fierce exchanges between their supporters, the Capobiancos still want Brown and his culture to be a part of Veronica’s life.
“She should stay in touch with her family,” Matt Capobianco said. “We’ve always said we want that.
“But we need to work together to make sure that happens,” his wife added.
Tribal members want to hold them to their promise.
Nicky Michael of the Delaware Tribe of Indians made the skirt that Veronica wore during her first stomp dance. The mother of three dedicates some of her spare time to Lenapeowsi, a nonprofit through which children of all tribes learn their cultures.
Through her group, Veronica learned to bellow the children’s song “Head, Shoulders, Knees and Toes” and the Christian hymns “Jesus Loves Me” and “Amazing Grace.”
“If she goes back there,” Michael said with a pause, “back to South Carolina, we would still do the same for her. She still needs to know who she is.”
Reach Andrew Knapp at 937-5414.