THE recent case of a 10-year-old Navajo boy caught in a tug of war, pitting his non-Indian adoptive parents and the Navajo nation against each other, seems to have ended on a happy note. A Navajo tribal court approved a compromise granting permanent custody of a 10-year-old Indian, Michael Halloway Carter, to both his adoptive parents and his natural mother.
Michael will live with non-Indian Dan and Patricia Carter of Spanish Fork, Utah, who adopted him when he was 3. His Indian mother, Cecelia Saunders of Iyanbito, N.M., will visit and expose him to his Navajo heritage.
But this story also spotlights the continuing problems faced by Native American children caught in a maelstrom of clashing cultures and values. Specifically, the case renewed the debate whether or not some Indian children are better off in non-Indian homes.
The Utah Supreme Court drew national attention in late 1986 when it voided the child's adoption by the Carters.
To bolster their case, the Navajos, who had filed a suit challenging the adoption, cited the 1978 Indian Child Welfare Act. The federal law was designed to preserve and protect Indian family life, and stem the flow of Indian children - such as young Michael - being adopted into non-Indian homes.
In passing the law, the United States Congress said: ``There is no resource that is more vital to the continued existence and integrity of Indian tribes than their children....''
In 1977, a report by the Association on American Indian Affairs (AAIA) showed that in states with large Indian populations, 25 to 35 percent of all Indian children - including many born amid poverty and alcoholism - were removed from their families and placed in foster homes or institutions. Tribal concern with the alarming rate of Indian family breakup paved the way for the legislation in 1978.
Jack F. Trope, an AAIA staff attorney, says there are no current surveys to show the present extent of Indian child removal, but maintains that ``a significant number of Indian children routinely are being removed from their Indian homes.''
Bertram Hirsch, a New York lawyer who drafted the 1978 law, says that if the Utah courts had bothered to read the law, Michael's case would not have dragged out for seven years before being settled. The federal law set standards for the removal of Indian children from Indian families and returned jurisdiction of child welfare cases to Indian tribes. The act also requires states to notify a child's tribe before the child is put up for adoption.
The Utah Supreme Court, in reversing a lower court decision granting approval of Michael Halloway Carter's adoption by the Carters, returned the case to Navajo tribal court. In a majority opinion, Justice Michael D. Zimmerman wrote that the federal Indian Child Welfare Act recognizes tribal interest in a child ``which is distinct from but on parity with the parents.''
Justice Zimmerman also wrote that the relationship between Indian children and the tribe ``finds no parallel'' in any other ethnic culture found in this country. ``It is a relationship that many non-Indians find difficult to understand and that non-Indian courts are slow to recognize,'' he ruled.
Many tribal leaders say the 1978 act is being widely disregarded. They view this as evidence of continued neglect of Native Americans and part of a centuries-old effort to mold them into the white man's image.
In Nebraska, for instance, 90 percent of Indian children now under foster care are placed in non-Indian homes, tribal representatives say.
Welfare officials in the state point to several crucial reasons for this: a critical lack of suitable Indian foster parents; Indian homes that fail to meet state standards to qualify as foster homes; difficulty in identifying some Indian children as Indian; and ignorance of the 1978 law by judicial and social service officials.
The law specifies that in determining custody or adoptive placement of an Indian child, preference should first be given to a member of the child's extended family, next to members of the child's tribe, then to members of other tribes. ``Only after those steps are exhausted can children be placed elsewhere,'' says Debora Brownyard, an Indian child welfare specialist in Lincoln, Neb. Typically, the state has not followed that procedure, she says.
Valerie Shangreaux, an Indian welfare expert in Lincoln and member of the Oglala Sioux tribe, says an ``attitude'' exists among many non-Indians that Native Americans are incapable of directing their own lives. ``Many Indian children have had a chaotic placement history,'' says Douglas Fleischer, unit manager for the Department of Social Services in Lincoln.
Mr. Fleischer, who has dealt with wards of the state for 20 years, says that in the past, the system has ``ignored the fact there are different perspectives in understanding and dealing with Indian children.'' He says social workers were unable to recognize tribal customs.
Indian welfare experts say that caseworkers were unaware of the Indian extended family. When children were left with relatives who were members of the extended family, social workers interpreted it as neglect or abandonment.
Mrs. Brownyard says recruitment of adoptive Indian families poses a problem for social service agencies. The criteria adopted, she says, are based on white middle-class values that have no relevance to the Indian community.
For example, a family might have the right home environment, but be ineligible because the family home doesn't have the required minimum square-foot space per resident; or there may be past alcohol problems in the family.
Brownyard says alternative licensing requirements should be established for Indians.
Although the focus of debate in the Michael Halloway Carter case may have been on the merits of cross-cultural adoptions, to many tribal leaders the issue also was the sovereignty of tribal law.
Cheryl Hall, of liberal Education for Adoptive Families, St. Paul, says although many may ignore the Indian Child Welfare Act, it has made the adoption of Indian children by non-Indians hard in Minnesota. She says that in adoption, ``the basic issue should be safety of the child and the child's emotional needs, instead of financial criteria.''
Indian children and the white world - yesterday and today
Many American Indians complain that historically, Anglos have judged Indians from their own point of reference. Anglos, they say, showed little interest in perpetuating tribal values and mores, but have sought, instead, to assimilate Indians and their children into white society.
Historians say that the Native Americans' universe consisted of spiritual forces that tied them to all of creation. Indians sought a balance with nature. They were faulted for not being acquisitive.
Early in this century, many Indian children were placed in distant government boarding schools. They were given non-Indian names and forbidden to speak their native tongues.
``Often, these children never saw their families again until they were adults - young adults,'' says Valerie Shangreaux, an Indian welfare expert. ``So you have generations of people raised institutionally, leaving them with absolutely no experience of bonding, nurturing, and parenting.''
Terry L. Cross, project director with the Northwest Indian Child Welfare Institute at Portland (Ore.) State University, says that in the 1960s social workers justified removal of Indian children from their impoverished homes as a ``humanitarian gesture,'' which opened the ``opportunities'' of white society to the children.
``No thought was given to improve the conditions of children on reservations and improve tribal economics,'' he says.
Today, while experts debate the efficacy and success of cross-cultural adoptions, tribal leaders are troubled about the state of young Indian adoptees.
``Most of them end with failed adoptions,'' says Bertram Hirsch, a New York lawyer. ``They lose their sense of self. They cannot function in the white world. They have a disproportionate number of suicides, and have drug and alcoholism problems.''
A 1985 study by Dr. Irving Berlin of the University of New Mexico showed that suicides among adoptee Indian children were four times as high as in the rest of the 15-to-24 age group.
``I have found [that] on reservations, a lot of these kids just don't know who they are,'' says Herbert Grandbois, associate professor in the School of Social Work at the University of Nebraska, Omaha.
After living in non-Indian homes, many of them have ``no sense of direction; they are in anomie,'' says Dr. Grandbois, a Chippewa.