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Broken ties: ‘Blood Memory’ tells story of Native children forced away from families

Sandy White Hawk (Sicangu Lakota) contemplates her adoption in Winner, South Dakota. (Courtesy of Bryan Heller)

Drew Nicholas aims to bring stories to life through film.

One of his first projects began right after film school in 2015.

Four years later, that project, “Blood Memory” is going to screen at the Santa Fe Independent Film Festival on Friday, Oct. 18.

“The film evolved the whole time,” he says. “It had to, because we kept getting new information on the subject.”

“Blood Memory” is a documentary with a heavy message.

The film tells the stories of the Native Americans who were forced to separate from their families during the Adoption Era.

The U.S. government’s approach from 1940 to 1978 was to ship Native children to an estimated 500 federally funded conversion schools and religious institutions.

The collective era of removal displaced 25% to 35% of Native American children from tribal communities by the late 1960s.

In 1978, the Indian Child Welfare Act was ratified by Congress. It prevented the unwarranted removal of Indian children from their homes and ensured that when Indian children were removed from their families, they would be placed in a culturally appropriate home when possible.

“As we went deeper into this, we found more people to interview,” Nicholas says. “We turned over one page at a time. It was really interesting to see how all of the information came together.”

One person Nicholas and crew found was Sandy White Hawk (Sicangu Lakota).

For White Hawk, the story of America’s Indian Adoption Era is not one of saving children, but of destroying tribes and families.

An abandoned prairie church at sunset in Martin, South Dakota.

At 18 months, White Hawk was removed from her Sicangu Lakota relatives and placed with a Christian missionary couple 400 miles from the reservation.

After a 30-year struggle through abuse and recovery, White Hawk sought out the missing pieces that were stolen from her.

“She discovered that her adoption was not an isolated case,” Nicholas says. “But it was a part of the nationwide assimilative movement that targeted American Indian children.”

Nicholas had more than 600 hours of footage – many of it taken at talking circles and public hearings.

“The editing process was tedious, and I feel it’s come together great,” he says. “Getting Sandy out there with the film helps, because she brings her personal story to the forefront. It’s a time that many people don’t know about and it’s still being challenged today.”

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