When I was 22, I became pregnant after a one-night fling. I immediately knew I could not raise a child on my own. The father had left for basic training and, by the time I found out I was expecting, he was weeks into his new life. I contemplated getting an abortion, but ultimately chose adoption. I am very thankful I had a choice.
I spent my first and second trimesters in relative solitude and largely ignoring my growing belly. I was detached from my body, which I can only explain as a kind of self-preservation.
By the time my third trimester came around, I finally faced this very real situation and started contacting adoption agencies.
“What ethnicity are you?” asked a very polite woman at one of the agencies.
“Native American,” I replied.
The line went silent.
Then, for the first time, I learned about a federal law called the Indian Child Welfare Act or ICWA.
ICWA became a law in the ’70s to preserve native culture by keeping native children placed up for adoption in homes within their tribe. Before ICWA, there was a disproportionately high rate of forced removal of native children from their traditional homes and therefore their culture.
The woman said I would need permission from my tribe to place my baby for adoption.
I called Meskwaki Family Services, my tribe’s equivalent to DHS, and told them what my intentions were. They said that as long as there were no objections, I was free to do what I felt I needed.
With no objections that I knew about, I continued my adoptive family search.
I read profiles of men and women who desperately wanted a child and eventually found a family I liked from Indiana. Mom, Tammy, owned a hair salon and Dad, Gary, was a competitive archer who had recently competed in Olympic trials. They sounded perfect: active, social, involved in their community and young. We began a relationship and kept in regular contact.
I called them after every OB appointment, and sometimes they called just to talk to him.
I didn’t want to get attached to the life inside me, but I gave him a name anyway: Braven Wyatt. Braven because I needed him to be brave on this journey and Wyatt because I have always loved that name. Turns out Tammy and Gary had also chosen a name: Wyatt Joseph.
That was our sign this was meant to be.
I spoke to Braven all the time. I explained what was going to happen, who his mom and dad were, and I told him, over and over again, that I only wanted the best for him.
An 8-pound Boy
On May 24, 2005, I went into labor.
My mom rushed me to the hospital. I remember watching the opening of the 5 o’clock news and three minutes later an 8-pound baby boy was placed in my arms. It was exhausting and painful, but I think I was just relieved it was over. Or so I thought it was.
Hours later, Meskwaki Family Services showed up at the hospital. I was informed that my dad had raised an objection to my adoption plan with our Tribal Council and that I had lost custody of my baby. ICWA had come into play.
The decision to strip me of custody was made by my father and a council comprised of all men. My voice as a mother, an enrolled tribal member and a woman was effectively silenced.
My blood ran cold. I felt nauseous. All of the pain and soreness from childbirth was secondary to the feeling of my heart shredding into pieces as my hours old baby was stolen by my tribe.
Gary and Tammy were holding Braven as Meskwaki Family Services told us all this. I watched them crumble as their hope was ripped away. Gary went mute and Tammy sobbed those sobs that are so hard no actual sound comes out.
My relationship with my dad ended that day. I decided to keep my son so he would not be awarded custody and I began the slow process of reversing the Tribal Council’s decision.
I became increasingly angry as the weeks went on. All I wanted was a good life for my child. I was acting in the best interest of my child. I had done nothing wrong, yet I was being punished.
I spoke to a reporter about the case and after the “Tribal Baby Battle” story aired, the floodgates opened.
Reporters from all over the world contacted me. Oprah called. My case was a topic on Tucker Carlsonʼs podcast (back when he still wore a bow tie).
But, most importantly, I became a point of discussion within my tribe. I was ostracized. I was called “Baby-seller.” I was told I was not a real Meskwaki. “This is not how we do things here,” people said.
But once, as I was walking into the Tribal Center to attend another one of my Tribal Court hearings, a koko stopped me. Koko is the Meskwaki word for grandmother and, in our culture, all of the tribe’s elder women are your grandmas.
She put her hands on my arms and said, “You tell them, gwede. (Gwede means little girl in our language.) Don’t be afraid to speak up for yourself. You let them know. You are a strong Meskwaki woman.”
After a few months of court hearings and struggle, I realized I could not raise this child. I gave into the tribe and Braven was placed with a Meskwaki family.
Stirring Anger, Finding Peace
I began a period of self-loathing. I hated myself. I hated my skin. I hated my heritage. I hated where I came from. I no longer wanted to be Meskwaki and I gave serious thought to dis-enrolling myself from the tribe.
I fell into a lot of bad habits. I stuck around Tama and wallowed in addiction, in jail cells, and in hospital psych wards until I ultimately decided to leave for good.
I moved to Des Moines at the end of 2010. And, here, I could disappear. I could be anywhere in the city and nobody looked like me. Nobody knew who I was. It was like I was a ghost.
But as time went on, I began to feel like there was a piece of me missing. It became draining being the only native in my universe. That fading into the background I had loved before, now just made me feel alone.
In 2015, I learned of oil pipelines and the threat they posed to native communities. I became involved in the No Dakota Access Pipeline scene and was so invested in what was happening at Standing Rock that I traveled there twice in the fall of 2016.
The feeling of being around native people from more than 400 tribes filled me with warmth — like a thermos of coffee poured until it is lapping at the brim.
One morning, I took part in a water ceremony on the banks of the Cannonball River. It was during the ceremony that it all hit me.
I was listening to prayers in another native tongue and all I could think was, “I wish I was home.”
In that instant, my anger and hate toward my community disappeared. It was like a switch flipped inside me, like a final piece of the puzzle snapped into place.
I realized that the culture I had been running away from was actually what I needed to feel whole.
Sitting in that hospital room 14 years ago, I was obsessed with thoughts of my choices. The good I was trying to do for my son. The better life I wanted him to have.
But there you have it: I was only thinking of myself.
ICWA forced me to think of the tribe — to consider the many instead of just one. Instead of my needs, I had to think of our greater heritage, culture and identity.
We are the originals and it’s laws like ICWA and decisions like my Tribal Council’s that protect our bodies, our descendants, our language and our way of life. The preservation of indigenous cultures is the only reason we have survived for so long. Continued preservation is the only way we will keep surviving.
Tribal sovereignty is paramount, and, with time and perspective, that’s become so clear to me.
Finding a True Home
Last summer, my great-uncle, and my tribal chairman, passed on. I knew I wanted to be a part of the ceremony to honor him. My anxiety grew as I drove to Tama knowing I was going to see my family after all this time.
But, one by one, all of my kokos and my aunties greeted me with hugs. My koko Betty said, “Welcome home, gwede,” and this pure calm flowed over me.
Home is a funny thing, isn’t it? We think of it as a place, a roof and four walls. But to me it’s a way of life. A native way of life.
I wanted to remove the native from my son by sending him to a non-native family. But the beautiful irony here is that he was placed with a lovely, upstanding family on the settlement. This family follows all the traditional Meskwaki ways. He is being raised with our history, our language and our customs. And he plays lacrosse, which is so native, I love it.
Gary and Tammy kept in touch for a while afterward. I think we were all scared to let go. One of their final correspondences with me was to say they had adopted infant twins: one girl and one boy they named Wyatt.
A few weeks ago, I spent time with my son for the first time since he was a baby. It was his close to his birthday, so we went shopping for presents. He chose the new “Call of Duty” game, a Nike T-shirt, a gaming headset and matching bracelets.
But none of those things were as important to him as his desire to know me. He wanted to see photos of me and our family. He wanted to connect to this part of him that he had been missing. He wanted the final piece of his puzzle. That is a feeling I deeply understand.
It took me years to come to terms with, but ICWA did its job. It preserved this native child just as it was intended. And because of that, I know he will always have a home — a true home — in his a place among my people.
Kelly Buffalo-Quinn is a member of the Sac and Fox Tribe Meskwaki Nation.
Editor’s note: Kelly Buffalo-Quinn first told this story on stage at the Des Moines Storytellers Project: On Second Thought event. The Des Moines Storytellers Project is a series of storytelling events in which community members work with Des Moines Register journalists to tell true, first-person stories live on stage. This is an edited version of what originally appeared in the Register.