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Sage’s Story

line Sage’s story began more than 30 years ago. Known as Lolita Johnson as a child, Sage was a victim of the Indian Child Welfare Act. Today, she is proud to stand up against how the law is being used and recently advocated in our nation’s capital for amendments to the federal law.

Sage was placed with a non-Native American couple when she was just an infant. They were the only family she had ever known but when Sage was 13 years old, a judge ordered her to go live with her natural mother on the Apache reservation. This ruling was because of the Indian Child Welfare Act, despite the fact that Sage did not want to go.

After nearly two years on the reservation, Sage’s birth mother told her to pack her bags and said, “You’re going home to your Mom and Dad.” That was the one and only time her birth mother referred to the DesRochers as Sage’s parents.

Since that day, Sage has lived a wonderfully happy life with her ‘white’ family. Living in Arizona, she is very much aware of her Indian heritage but to this day resents the unnecessary pain and suffering inflicted on herself and her family because of a law that preempted her own wishes.


Tom Brokaw covered Sage’s story in 1989. Here is the transcript from NBC Nightly News.

Teen Fights to Remain with White Foster Parents

Photo Credit NBCUniversal Media, LLC. 1989

TOM BROKAW, anchor: Also in Arizona, at the Apache reservation, there’s a battle raging these days over the status of a fourteen-year-old Indian girl who had been raised off the reservation. NBC’s Roger O’Neil reports tonight that among the issues being raised here is whether tribal laws take precedence over civil rights.

ROGER O’NEIL reporting: She was born a full-blooded Apache but for 12 years was raised by white foster parents. Now, Lolita Johnson is back on the reservation, ordered by a judge to live with her natural mother. But Lolita wants out.

Ms. LOLITA JOHNSON: I want to go back and live with my foster parents. That’s all I want. I hate it here.

O’NEIL: The foster parents, Norm and Nadeen Derocher thought they had legally adopted Lolita, but when the child’s Indian mother said she wanted her back, an Arizona judge ruled that the Derochers did not follow proper adoption procedures.

Mr. NORM DEROCHER: It shouldn’t be culture, it should just be Lita. What does Lita want?

O’NEIL: The child’s natural mother said she never intended to give her daughter up forever.

Ms. THURZA ALTAHA: I never forgotten her in my whole entire life. I always cry for her and then I ask the lord to help me.

O’NEIL: Until recently, because of rampant poverty and births out of wedlock, as many as 25 percent of Indian children were placed in non-Indian foster homes or were adopted. Now the tribes are trying to convince Indian mothers not to give their children up and are actively involved in trying to get them back. Concerned about that trend, the head of the U.S. Civil Rights Commission, William Allen, and a child psychologist went to the White River Apache reservation in Arizona to investigate the case of Lolita Johnson.

Dr. BARRY GOODFIELD (Child Psychologist): Lolita, do you feel like you’re being held here against your will?

Ms. JOHNSON: Yes.

O’NEIL: Allen now says he believes the girl’s civil rights are being violated.

Mr. WILLIAM ALLEN (Civil Rights Commission): 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’s totally inconsistent with anything an American ought to believe.

O’NEIL: The psychologist, Dr. Barry Goodfield, clearly wanted to take Lolita off the reservation.

Dr. GOODFIELD: You walk down that road and I’m gonna come in a car. If you put your thumb out like you’re hitchhiking I’ll stop and pick you up. You understand that?

Ms. JOHNSON: Yes.

Dr. GOODFIELD: Get walking down that road.

O’NEIL: But civil rights chairman Allen argued against the plan, saying it was illegal.

Mr. ALLEN: This is kidnapping. I don’t care how you try to understand it. You mustn’t do it.

O’NEIL: The girl was left on the reservation with her natural mother. And since Indian tribes have their own laws, the civil rights commission fears that Lolita will have to stay here four more years until she is an adult. Roger O’Neil, NBC News

SAGE’S UPDATE: Sage is happy and thriving as an adult living in Arizona.

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