Sioux Culture Clouds Girl's Future : Law: The Standing Rock tribe fears the child is in danger of losing her heritage. It plans to appeal judge's decision allowing her to stay with guardian, with whom she has lived nearly all her life.


Kayla American Horse's hopes seem simple enough: to stay in Kentucky, play basketball, join the cheerleaders and serve on the safety patrol.

But her future is anything but simple.

Eleven-year-old Kayla is at the center of an increasingly bitter custody fight that pits Loni Rye, the Kentucky woman who reared her from the age of 8 months, against the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe.

The tribe claims Kayla as a member--and argues that she belongs with her people. Too many children, the Sioux say, are adopted off the reservations.

"The bottom line is, Indian children are the lifeblood of Indian tribes," said Steve Moore, a senior staff attorney with the Native American Rights Fund of Boulder, Colo.

The population base is diminishing due to these cases, he said. "The very vitality of tribes are threatened."

All Kayla wants is to be a kid.

"I'm scared," Kayla whispered. "I wish this would be over."

It is not. Although Boyd County Circuit Judge C. David Hagerman awarded custody to Loni Rye in April, the tribe has promised to appeal.

Rye says when she first saw Kayla on the reservation in 1984, the girl was clothed in nothing but a filthy T-shirt. Kayla's mother, now known as Effie Iron Road, was an alcoholic and admitted she couldn't care for Kayla.

The mother signed custody of Kayla over to Rye and her ex-husband, Kim Weasel, who is Kayla's uncle and a member of the tribe. A tribal judge later appointed them legal guardians, although retaining wardship.

But in the intervening years, Rye said, the tribe showed no interest in Kayla. When Rye asked for financial assistance three years ago to have a hole in Kayla's heart repaired, the tribe refused.

"It just seems to me to be kind of a self-serving proposition," said Gurney Johnson, Rye's attorney. " 'Now the child's well and happy, so we want her back.' "

Standing Rock Chief Tribal Judge Mike Swallow said the tribe had no reason to be concerned about Kayla until October, when Rye and her husband filed for divorce. He feared that without Weasel, Kayla would have no tribal influence in her life.

Rye said that was absurd.

She said she took Kayla and her other two children, who also are on the tribe's rolls, to powwows and other cultural events. Rye, who is of Cherokee and Choctaw descent, has also given the children books about their heritage.

"I love the Sioux people," she said. "They're wonderful people."

Still, the custody fight has gotten ugly.

In arguing that the case not be transferred to the reservation, Johnson described "deplorable" conditions in some Sioux foster homes. And Swallow cited a petition circulated in the Ashland area that accused the tribe of wanting Kayla merely for "a government check and for breeding purposes."

Swallow argued that Kayla was still a ward of the tribe, and that the case should have been transferred to the reservation, which straddles the North Dakota-South Dakota border. But Hagerman maintained jurisdiction because Kayla and most of the witnesses in the case live in Kentucky.

While not discounting the bond between Rye and Kayla, Moore said there are "competing factors that come into play" in Indian custody battles.

Toby Grossman, senior staff attorney for the American Indian Law Center in Albuquerque, N.M., said there are several hundred such cases pending each year.

Grossman could not say how many of those children are returned to the reservation. But when most tribes number in the low thousands, even one case "is terribly significant," she said.

"They look at one child as important to them, and people have to understand that," she said.

The federal Indian Child Welfare Act of 1978 was passed to help reduce the number of adoptions off the reservations. Moore of the Native American Rights Fund said the law is so full of loopholes as to be nearly ineffective.

He said nearly half of the estimated 1.96 million people of American Indian ancestry live off the reservations. That puts tribal courts at a great disadvantage in custody cases, he said.

"There's been an obvious effort by state court judges to create loopholes and exemptions (in the act), to the point that I believe Congress needs to take the matter up again," he said.

Rye is preparing for a long fight for Kayla. She has contracted with Los Angeles-based manager George Pasmore to hire a tutor to school the children in Sioux ways and establish a defense fund at an Ashland bank.

Pasmore is also lining up television appearances and has already assigned the rights for a movie "if a show is to be made."

Kayla was in New York to appear on ABC's "Good Morning America" the day Hagerman made his ruling. She says she's getting tired of the attention.

"Everybody in my school, all the teachers, call me a movie star," she said. "I don't want to be on TV at all."

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