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Navajo Baby in Custody Dispute Straddles Two Cultures

June 20, 1988

SAN JOSE, Calif. (AP) _ Silver and turquoise jewelry adorn Allyssa’s tiny hands, and Indian images hang in the small house across from a shopping mall far from the red stone and open sky of her Arizona reservation.

One of the rings is a gift from a Navajo elder at a recent powwow that 11- month-old Allyssa visited with Rick and Cheryl Pitts, who have been trying to adopt her since her birth.

The custody case has split the Navajo Nation. Many in the tribe sympathized, but others vilified the Pittses and Allyssa’s Navajo mother, Patricia Keetso, who moved in with the couple when she was pregnant and still lives with them.

A tribal court granted the Pittses’ temporary custody of Allyssa in April and is considering whether to grant permanent guardianship. A 1978 federal law gives tribal courts jurisdiction in adoption cases of Indian children as a way of preserving the heritage of the tribes.

″I believe in the old traditional ways,″ the elder told the Pittses. ″But seeing you, knowing how much you love that baby, you deserve her.″

Oblivious of the legal tangle, Allyssa plays happily, a child with two mothers and two cultures.

She has been blessed by a Navajo medicine man and a pastor of the Evangelical Free Church. Rather than the earthen-walled hogans and trailer homes that dot the hot, dry reservation, wood frame and stucco houses line the streets in the Pittses’ busy San Jose neighborhood.

″I think she’ll have a better understanding of both worlds,″ said Pitts, who with his wife agreed to take Allyssa back to the reservation frequently as she grows up and to have her learn Navajo ways.

Keetso, 21 and unmarried, is working as a supermarket cashier but has applied to join the Air Force and says she’s eager to start a new life. The custody fight with her tribe, she says, has been ″like an explosion in my face.″

Keetso, who has lived away from the reservation most of her life under a Mormon Church education program, says tribal officials have criticized her but many Navajos have been supportive.

She plans to see her daughter regularly, and Mrs. Pitts says it’s all right with her if Allyssa calls them both ″Mom.″

Keetso met the Pittses through an ad placed by adoption attorneys in a Navajo newspaper. The ad read, ″Pregnant? We’re willing to help you.″ Keetso wrote to the attorneys, saying she wanted to give her baby to a family that would provide a good home and education off the reservation.

About a week later, the Pittses contacted the same attorneys about their desire to adopt a baby after Mrs. Pitts had three miscarriages trying to have a second child and then had a hysterectomy.

The birth and Keetso’s immediate release of Allyssa to the Pittses went smoothly, until the tribe intervened.

Following terms of the 1978 Indian Child Welfare Act, they notified the tribe that the adoption was pending in a non-Indian California court. In February, the tribe sought custody.

The Pittses feared they might have lost Allyssa forever when tribal officials took her away to Arizona in April. The couple had given her up at the airport in San Jose on orders from a Superior Court judge who ruled Indian courts had jurisdiction.

Allyssa cried as the officials walked away with her and kept her separated from Mrs. Pitts and Keetso as they flew to Phoenix on the same plane. From there, they expected to fly with Allyssa and the officials to Flagstaff. Instead, the Navajos drove off to the stark, 14-million-acre reservation in northeastern Arizona, leaving Mrs. Pitts and Keetso frantic about Allyssa’s welfare.

″I thought giving up the baby was hard, but when the tribe intervened that was the hardest, especially when they ran off with Allyssa,″ Keetso says. ″They said I brought shame on the Navajo nation. But I am ashamed at how they mistreated her.″

When the Pittses and Keetso next saw Allyssa three days later, they say she was filthy and running a fever. Child-psychologist Barry Goodfield said she also was reacting in a way that reflected stress and fear.

″She’d always been a happy-go-lucky baby, and anybody could hold her,″ Mrs. Pitts said. ″After they took her, she would only allow me to hold her for quite some time.″

She added, ″She’s pretty much back to normal now,″ and Goodfield agreed.

Anslem Roanhorse, director of the Navajo Division of Social Welfare, denied Allyssa was neglected or mistreated in her stay with Indian officials.

He said the baby was taken first to a hospital for an evaluation and to obtain medication for asthma, then was put in the care of an experienced foster parent.

″We know for a fact that she was not neglected,″ Roanhorse said.

The Pittses owe $13,000 in lawyers’ fees. Pitts, an independent building contractor, lost more than $10,000 in income while fighting to keep Allyssa. Several Hollywood studios have shown interest in the story, but no deals have been signed.

In another month or so, perhaps by Allyssa’s first birthday on July 20, the Pittses hope the tribal court will approve their permanent guardianship petition.

Even then, Pitts said, ″I don’t think the experience we went through, the emotions it stirred up, will ever be over.

″We’ll always be reminded of it because we’re always going to campaign against this law, as long as it’s being enforced the way it is, to help anyone else who falls into this unfortunate situation.″

The Indian Child Welfare Act was part of an effort to stop the exodus of thousands of Indian children - as many as 35 percent of some tribes’ youngsters - to non-Indian homes after their parents’ rights were terminated by non-Indian courts.

Welfare agencies, using a non-Indian set of cultural values, often found fault with Indian child-rearing practices or assumed life off the reservation would be better.

Roanhorse compared Indians to endangered species, saying their future was threatened by the loss of children.

The Pittses and Keetso don’t disagree with the reasons behind the Indian Child Welfare Act. But they criticize the way Indian officials handled their case.

″I believe they were sincere in their concerns about their heritage and culture, and we share their concerns,″ Pitts said.

″It was our original arrangement with Patricia that she’d be able to see Allyssa all she wants and we’d take Allyssa out to visit Patricia’s family on the reservation,″ he said. ″That’s the same thing the tribal court said it wanted. If the Indian welfare people had bothered to ask before they went to court, they’d have spared all of us a lot of pain.″

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