How American Indian family separation leaves impacts generations later : Code Switch Bear Carrillo grew up knowing only a few details about his birth parents: when he was born they were university students, the first from their tribes to go to college, and they just couldn't afford to keep him. Decades later, a DNA test kit uncovers a new story.

A lost bird, a found treasure

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I'm B.A. Parker, and this is CODE SWITCH from NPR. And today, I've got a special guest on the mic with me. She's a friend of the show and a reporter on NPR's education desk - Sequoia Carrillo.

Hi, Sequoia.

SEQUOIA CARRILLO, BYLINE: Hi, Parker. Thanks for having me.

PARKER: Of course. Now, it's that time of year where some of us gear up to see family for the holidays, and I've been thinking a lot about the stories we tell about where we come from - like those origin stories. Sometimes those stories are very real and straightforward, and sometimes those stories sort of turn into myths.

S CARRILLO: Oh, yeah. I feel like I can definitely relate to the latter more than the first part. In my family, the story my dad loved to tell was about his biological parents. He was adopted in 1952 in Salt Lake City, Utah, without any details on his birth parents. But his adopted mom, Cleo, had one story that gave us a few clues.

BEAR CARRILLO: She was working in an emergency room at that time, and an Indian girl came in with an Indian boy...

S CARRILLO: In the story, they were a young couple, and they had a baby with them. The guy was tall and lanky, with a big belt buckle. And the girl was shorter and more round. They were both students at the University of Utah and the first from their tribes to go to college, so they couldn't keep the baby. They loved him, but they couldn't keep him.

B CARRILLO: They said, we don't know what to do. We have no idea what to do. And my mom suggested a priest that they go talk to. And, you know, there was just that one night. That was it - never saw them again.

S CARRILLO: Until my Grandma Cleo got a call from that same priest - her priest - a few weeks later. He said her prayers had been answered, and he had a baby boy for her to adopt.

PARKER: It was your dad?

S CARRILLO: Yep. And that was the only lead we had for decades into who my dad's parents were. And he tried everything. He couldn't get government records because the adoption was through the Catholic Church, and the church wouldn't give him any information. And my mom and dad placed ads in papers around the area he was born and on nearby reservations. I mean, they've looked through University of Utah yearbooks trying to find that short girl and the tall, lanky boy.

PARKER: Sequoia, did they find them?

S CARRILLO: No, they never did because they aren't real.


PARKER: Wait, what?


PARKER: All that time and all that effort, and it wasn't real? I'd be heartbroken.

S CARRILLO: Yeah. My grandma made the whole story up. We have no idea where it came from.

PARKER: How'd they figure out it wasn't true?


S CARRILLO: Because in 2018, when he was 66 years old, my dad finally found his real dad, who was not a tribal student from the University of Utah. My grandpa didn't even know he was American Indian.


PARKER: Well, I can see more where your grandma was coming from. I feel like so many parents and grandparents have these gaps in their stories that they don't know how to fill, and they just make stuff up.

S CARRILLO: Absolutely.

PARKER: Like, my dad used to tell us one of his grandmothers came on a boat from Sicily, and she most definitely came from a boat from the Maryland Eastern Shore.


S CARRILLO: I mean, yes, exactly. You want to give your kids something to believe in. And so, you know, you come up with stuff. You make it romantic and beautiful. And it's not often like that in real life.

PARKER: Yeah. But that's that 20th-century collective trauma for you.

S CARRILLO: And collective trauma is exactly it - I mean, especially when we're talking about Native Americans. It's reported that up to a third of all Indian children were separated from their families between 1941 and 1967.

PARKER: That's such a profound and impactful number.

S CARRILLO: Yeah, like 1 in 3. And that number wouldn't even count my dad or his dad because they weren't adopted off of reservations. They'd had generations of displacement beforehand. But that's now the new story at our family table - how my dad, Bear Carrillo...

PARKER: Iconic name.

S CARRILLO: ...He's an iconic guy - found his dad really late in life, after a lot of searching, through a pretty easy solution - through AncestryDNA.


S CARRILLO: It was pretty obvious early on in my dad's life that he was different. Like I said, he grew up in Salt Lake City, Utah, and Utah at the time was 98% white. So this is a very white state. And my dad is a very clearly not white guy.

PARKER: So were his adopted parents white?

S CARRILLO: No, they were actually Mexican American. But, again, it was kind of complicated back then. My dad's dad really saw success as total assimilation.

PARKER: The whole assimilation as a survival mechanism that totally erases your identity - you know, that old chestnut?

S CARRILLO: Oh, yeah. And as soon as he got promoted from a truck driver to an office job at the local lumber company, he moved his family into a neighborhood called Rose Park.

B CARRILLO: Everybody was telling him, you can't move into Rose Park unless you're white. My father was first-generational Mexican. He was also a World War II veteran - Navy veteran - and he took it all very seriously, but almost to a point that was all about changing everything about his life to fit into that mold.

S CARRILLO: And one part of fitting into the mold of Salt Lake City was speaking English.

B CARRILLO: The only time we spoke Spanish was when we were around aunts and uncles and grandpa and grandma. Once I turned 8 years old, me and my sister were not allowed to speak Spanish. We didn't understand that. My grandmother didn't understand that. And after many times of her and my father arguing and yelling at each other, he finally said, they're going to speak English. They have to speak English. That's what the world is going to be like.

S CARRILLO: My grandpa took this so far that he even changed the pronunciation of our last name. So instead of Carriyo (ph), it's Carrillo. And that's how I pronounce my last name now. And I can't even really say it the correct way, which is really sad.

PARKER: Yeah. And it seems like, around every turn, every generation is losing something, so whether it's chunks of culture or even the pronunciation of your last name. Was anything kept?

S CARRILLO: I mean, they kept some things tied to Mexican culture, which was his parents' culture, and a lot of it revolved around food. My dad always talks about his mom's cooking.

B CARRILLO: She made beans, tortillas. She made sopapillas. She made everything that I make - calabacitas, which is a vegetable concoction that was incredible. She was just an excellent cook.

S CARRILLO: But the family stood out everywhere. Right when they moved into Rose Park, actually, my grandma got a note taped to their front door.

B CARRILLO: It was a letter from all the neighbors (crying) in a four-block radius that said they wanted us to leave. They wanted us to move out as quickly as possible - that we didn't belong here.


PARKER: What did they do?

S CARRILLO: Well, my dad said his mom got really mad at first, and then, he says, she decided to do something about it.

B CARRILLO: And she goes, (crying) I decided to take you two, and we were going to walk and talk to every single person on that paper. And I told them that they - that we weren't going anywhere, and we were going to be here longer than they were.

S CARRILLO: My dad got really choked up telling that story. My Grandma Cleo passed away when I was little, but she was right. She lived the rest of her life in that house in Rose Park.


PARKER: So if your dad grew up in a Mexican American family, when did he learn he was Native?

S CARRILLO: When he was about 10 years old - so he says he was actually playing outside, and his mom called him in for lunch. And she sat him down and told him that he was adopted and that he was American Indian. And he said it didn't faze him very much. I mean, he was 10 years old. But it did give him a word to define himself when other kids would taunt him, and that happened a lot.

B CARRILLO: Everybody that was in that school and in my class thought I was Black because I was dark brown. But to them, that was Black. And so I was - everything that you've heard Blacks called, that's what I was called.

S CARRILLO: Eventually, he learned that the best way to fight it was to not fight.

B CARRILLO: Being in that situation, where you are basically the only one or two or three that look different from everybody else - you end up doing more of not saying anything about it only for your own salvation and just - you know, just to keep trying to have friends and to have interaction.

S CARRILLO: And despite all that, he had a mostly good childhood. He played music with friends. He was state-ranked in tennis, which he always talks about. And then, after high school, he got drafted into Vietnam. When the war ended, he left the service. And this is where it gets wild, so hold on tight. He starts doing modern dance.


S CARRILLO: He plays in a few different bands. One of them gets a music video on MTV. He becomes a fire eater. He tours Europe with a group of mimes from Salt Lake City.


PARKER: So Bear has lived a life.

S CARRILLO: I know. I wouldn't believe it if I hadn't seen the pictures, but he really did do all of that.


PARKER: So can we zoom out here? Your dad sounds like he stood out a lot, especially in his neighborhood. But, like you said, Native adoptions at this point were part of a huge pattern.

S CARRILLO: Yeah. My dad definitely overcame a lot. But then, when he spread his wings, he did kind of get this life that a lot of people did not have who came from his same situation.

PARKER: Yeah. I mean, we've talked about Native family separation on CODE SWITCH - about how Native kids were taken from their families and their home communities to go to boarding schools and then, you know, forced to assimilate into white, American, English-speaking society as far back as the 1860s.

S CARRILLO: Exactly. And that wasn't the only effort to eliminate Native American culture. In the 1950s and '60s - so a hundred years later - there was a federal program called the Indian Adoption Project that removed kids from Native American families, and many of them were adopted into non-Native households.

PARKER: Talk about collective trauma.

S CARRILLO: Absolutely. And there's decades of evidence that shows just how many Native kids were adopted outside their communities. Those adoptions were so traumatic and so widespread that it resulted in the Indian Child Welfare Act, or ICWA.

PARKER: Now, I've heard about ICWA more recently. That's the law that is meant to keep Native American kids within Native American communities.

S CARRILLO: Right. You've probably heard about it recently because there's a case in the Supreme Court. They're actually hearing arguments right now that contests ICWA.

But back to my dad. Even though he wasn't one of the adoptees in the Indian Adoption Project, his story speaks to how big the problem may have been that he wouldn't show up on these statistics. But the impact of his adoption is still something he felt throughout his life and even passed down to me and my siblings.

PARKER: And I've done stories about adoption before, and something I've heard is that there is some melancholy around this loss in connection with identity. So when did your dad push past Grandma Cleo's tall tale and start to dig into his Native identity?

S CARRILLO: He said it was around when he moved back to Salt Lake City. So at that point, he had two sons named Cheyenne (ph) and Elijah (ph), who are my half brothers.

B CARRILLO: I was raising the boys and playing music, but I had a job working at the juvenile detention center in Salt Lake City.

S CARRILLO: He was a guard at the time. But then another job came up at the center to be a facilitator for students' parents, and he took it because it had better hours.

B CARRILLO: And what started happening is that any time we would get a Native person, they would match me with them to speak to them and to speak to their parents.

S CARRILLO: He looked like the Native kids being brought in, so he ended up being the one put on their cases and eventually who could get through to them. And often the parents would trust him. And he continued to work with Native kids over the next few years. And then eventually, when they needed people to do diversity work in other facilities, they would call my dad. And those jobs took him all over the country. And he ended up moving to D.C. as a home base.

B CARRILLO: Once I got to D.C., I started working with so many Native Americans that it started making me think I need to find out more. I need to find out more.

S CARRILLO: There was one story in particular he used to tell us a lot.

B CARRILLO: I was in Navajo country. And when I was there, at those meetings - it's funny. I had grandmas come up to me during the break. And they go, we know you. I just went, you don't. And they go, we know you. You - you're Navajo. I said, I don't know that. And they go, we know who you are. And they go, you look Navajo. You should remember that.

S CARRILLO: The topic would come up often in this line of work. Who are you? Are you Indian? And people would even offer to help him look.

B CARRILLO: I had people come up to me and say that they knew of a certain family here or a certain family there and stuff like that. But after looking into it, it didn't lead anywhere.

S CARRILLO: Working in these spaces, my dad started to hope that finding his birth family would involve not only finding a family, but also a community or a tribe. And this gets tricky. Proving tribal affiliation in adoptions like his is very hard because there's just no information.

PARKER: And he's also only been told that his parents are university students, right?

S CARRILLO: Mmm hmm.

PARKER: And you already said that that was a lie.

S CARRILLO: Yeah. So it ends up being this false lead. Like, we're pouring all of our energy into finding these people who don't exist. So after a lot of years of trying, on both my mom and my dad's part, everything goes quiet for a while until Christmas of 2017, when my mom randomly got my dad an AncestryDNA kit. I think it was from Target. I think it was just sitting on an end cap and, you know, it's Christmas, and there's never enough presents for the parents. And so my mom just grabbed it and was like, why don't we try it? And he sent it away. And when his results came back in, he had a paternal match.

PARKER: Next on CODE SWITCH - Bear meets his dad.

B CARRILLO: We put our hands on the screen, and they were exactly the same.

PARKER: Stay with us.


S CARRILLO: Sequoia.


So, Sequoia, we left off with your dad, Bear, after so many stops and starts, finally finding his biological father.

S CARRILLO: Yeah, which is a miracle in and of itself. But it turns out that there was a parallel story happening all the way in Colorado. So let me introduce you to my Aunt Rita.


She's my dad's half sister.

RITA O'KELLEY: Just ignore her for a little bit.

S CARRILLO: And she grew up in Cortez, Colo., which is a small town in the Four Corners region.

O'KELLEY: Let me just...


O'KELLEY: Ray, can I call you back? I'm being interviewed right now by Sequoia.

S CARRILLO: (Laughter) Hi, Ray.

O'KELLEY: Yeah, Ray. OK. Bye.

S CARRILLO: She grew up in a house with her parents, Phil and Martha, and her sister Raylene, who she was just on the phone with. Rita says they grew up with only one complaint.

O'KELLEY: My sister and I have always wanted a brother - always.

S CARRILLO: And they have one - my dad. They just didn't know it yet. They also didn't know they were Native American.

Growing up, how did you identify yourself?

O'KELLEY: Spanish - yeah. My parents think that we don't understand them, but they speak Spanish to each other like we're not in the room and we don't know (laughter) what's being said. So that has always been our language. My dad - that was his first language. So never thought in terms of being Native American, always thought that we were at least Spanish American or Mexican American. We probably are all of those three things.

S CARRILLO: Phil was raised on a farm in New Mexico in the Four Corners region.

PARKER: Just a second, OK? I'm an East Coast kid, and I didn't exactly know where the Four Corners were until, like, a few years.

S CARRILLO: (Laughter) Fair. OK. So you can think of UCAN. It's where the borders of Utah, Colorado, Arizona and New Mexico meet at right angles. If you look at a map, it's pretty obvious.

PARKER: That's actually helpful.


PARKER: So looking at a map, it looks like the Navajo Nation and Ute Nation are around there, too.

S CARRILLO: Exactly. So Phil grew up really close to multiple reservations. But the main way people connected was through their language. And Phil spoke Spanish. So to him, he was Spanish. But he made the decision to steer Rita and Raylene away from the language.

O'KELLEY: You know, I regret that I didn't learn my second language, which is Spanish, because my dad did not want me to have an accent. He did not want me to get the disrespect that he would get sometimes because of his accent.


PARKER: That sounds a lot like how your dad grew up.

S CARRILLO: I know. It does, right down to the food on the table.

O'KELLEY: Comfort foods were enchiladas.


O'KELLEY: Mom is - was a wonderful cook. And she loved to make tortillas and beans and chili and potatoes.

S CARRILLO: When we visited her earlier this year, she made us an amazing chili. But it wasn't until Rita's daughter, Leslie (ph), started traveling around the Navajo Nation for work and brought her along that she actually ever wondered about her own ancestry.

O'KELLEY: I'll never forget - we went to one of the Pueblos. And just - I felt such a connection to that area. Later, when I started doing research for my DNA and found out where my family lived, they didn't live far from there. So that's why I had a connection to that land, to that area - because that's where my ancestors, they lived.

S CARRILLO: This idea didn't just come out of thin air. Like my dad, Rita, was asked by people around her all the time if she was Native while she was growing up.

O'KELLEY: You know, many times they'll ask me, well, what tribe are you from? I go, I don't know. I really don't know.

S CARRILLO: So Leslie, her daughter, went out to find answers, and she sent in a tube of saliva to AncestryDNA, and then soon after, Rita sent in hers. And they were surprised by a lot of things in the results. It did show that they were Native American. But the biggest surprise came a few months later when, out of the blue, Rita got a message from my mom, explaining that it looked like she and my dad were related and would she mind answering some questions.

O'KELLEY: And I said, sure. You know, I said, I don't know if I can help you much, but certainly. And she said, well, we're a little bit confused because we have this one connection with someone, and we're not sure if it's a father, uncle or whatever, but he has initials P.M. And I go, huh? Yes. OK. I said, that's my dad. And that's how we decided that she was talking about, my father was your dad's father.


S CARRILLO: It was a lot to process. Rita told Phil first.

PHIL MARTINEZ: She says, you know you've got a son? (Laughter) I said, what? I didn't - I had no idea.

O'KELLEY: But I had to tell dad. You know, DNA does not lie. I said, the reality is you do have a son. And I think it took him a little while to just grasp the whole magnitude because he was young when it happened.

PARKER: How young are we talking here?

S CARRILLO: Like, a teenager - and remember, this man is now in his late 80s. Imagine trying to recall a single night out when you were a teenager 60 years later.

PARKER: I can't even remember last year.

S CARRILLO: No, me neither. But eventually, Phil did remember enough.


S CARRILLO: The story goes that it's 1951. Phil is 17, and he'd just left home and was headed out to Denver to look for work. And he ends up in a bar somewhere along the way where he meets a tall woman. He said she looked Indian, but not Navajo like the ones that he'd grown up around in New Mexico. He guessed Apache, but the details are very fuzzy.

MARTINEZ: We had been drinking a little beer, I guess, both of us. She was 19, I think.

S CARRILLO: The whole night, actually, is pretty blurry.

PARKER: Clearly.

MARTINEZ: And I've never seen her again. I do remember her saying that she lived in Salt Lake. She had her own car and everything. And, in fact, she invited me to go with her, but I wouldn't go.

S CARRILLO: A few months later, he gets a maintenance job at an Air Force base and ends up in the Army. A few years after that, in his early 20's, he meets a woman named Martha Archibeque, and they get married. They had Rita and Raylene, and they stayed together their whole lives.

PARKER: OK. When does Bear come back into the story?

S CARRILLO: Well, after finding Phil and establishing the connection, my parents got on a video call to meet everyone. At first, it was just Rita, Ray and Martha, their mom. And everyone was pretty emotional. I mean, my dad had been waiting for this moment for most of his life.

B CARRILLO: They saw me on FaceTime, and they all kind of held their breath. And they weren't shocked. They just couldn't believe in it. But it was right there. And then Dad came into the picture, and he saw me. And we both looked at each other. And...

MARTINEZ: I guess I - we look a little bit alike.

S CARRILLO: They look exactly alike, straight down to their hands. I mean, people always say my dad has, like, bear paws for hands.

B CARRILLO: We put our hands on the screen. They were exactly the same - every part, every line. Every part was the same.


MARTHA MARTINEZ: I told him - I says, you know, sweetheart, sometimes God will use someone to let us know where we have lost treasures. And I said, and we found one treasure, and it was you.

S CARRILLO: That was Martha, Phil's wife. And this is amazing for a number of reasons. For one, Martha is not my dad's biological mom. And she was so warm and welcoming and accepting and loving.

PARKER: Yeah. You can really hear that in her voice.

S CARRILLO: My dad has always called her the angel in this situation. She even had this moment where she said she dreamed of my dad before she even knew he existed.

M MARTINEZ: I had a dream, and I was in a marketplace, and I seen this sailor. And when he passed me, he says, Martha. And I turned and I see him, but I couldn't see his face. Two years later, when Phil found out that he had a son, I said, was he a sailor? And he says, yes; how do you know? Through my dream.

MARTINEZ: One reason why this moment and this story is so meaningful to me is that we almost missed it. Martha died about six months after we interviewed her for this story. But in that short amount of time that she got to be in my dad's life, I saw her fill, like, a hole in him and just, like, fill him with love. And there was never a moment that she or any of the Martinezes made my dad or our family feel like we were any different from any of their other family, which was a huge blessing.


S CARRILLO: So the call, as you can tell, goes very well. My sister and I were in college at the time, but we flew out for a family reunion of sorts. My dad was 66 years old when he first met his dad in person. And Phil was 83.

PARKER: How did that go?

S CARRILLO: As soon as we got to Cortez, where Phil and Martha lived, it was emotional.

B CARRILLO: Martha immediately started crying, soon as she saw me.


M MARTINEZ: How are you, my love?

B CARRILLO: And I saw Dad. And I just went over, and we started hugging each other.


B CARRILLO: How are you?


PARKER: That's so sweet.

S CARRILLO: Yeah. My dad was obviously crying and a little bit giddy. And when he first went out there, they spent a little time on their own. And they both loved art. And so they stopped at this little craft stand on the side of the road near one of the reservations. And my dad kept going up to everyone that was browsing and saying, this is my dad.

MARTINEZ: He'd say, this is my dad. And then they'd say, I know.


MARTINEZ: Yeah. Most of them said that. It looks like it.


S CARRILLO: All in all, the visit went better than any of us could have hoped. And not only did they practically look like twins, their lives had some really strange similarities. Like, both had military service. Both were prison guards, handymen, fishermen, gardeners. And they were both raised by adopted, Spanish-speaking families.

PARKER: It's pretty incredible.

S CARRILLO: Yeah. There was really one big way in which Phil's and my dad's life was different. Phil has never known or identified as Indian.

PARKER: Wait. What do you mean?

S CARRILLO: Well, he grew up in a Spanish-speaking family. And when we asked him and Martha about being Native, they said they were a little Spanish, and the discussion just kind of ended there. So any questions that the family had had on their past came from the daughters, came from Rita and Raylene, and then from Leslie and Candace, their daughters. Phil and Martha didn't really share that same desire for answers.

PARKER: Oh, so your dad spent so much time connecting with his American Indian heritage. How did that make him feel?

S CARRILLO: You know, I think he was just so happy to find his dad and his family that he really hasn't focused on that. And I wouldn't trade our story for anything. But at the same time, it was this final confirmation that even though we feel so connected to our American Indian roots, we won't be able to prove tribal affiliation. There won't ever be an official built-in community for us to connect with that cultural heritage.

PARKER: That really hits hard. And when you look back at how many people could have stories like your dad's and like Phil's, during the time of close adoptions, there could be so many people like you who have this heritage and can't claim it.

S CARRILLO: Yeah. It's a little overwhelming to think about, like, their story could be one in a million, or it could be so common, and everyone could just be struggling through this journey by themselves, thinking they're the only one.


S CARRILLO: There's a term for Indians who couldn't find their way back to the reservation after they were taken. They're called lost birds. They're kind of always searching and hoping to get back to the flock. And as long as I've been alive, I've known my dad as a lost bird. And that's kind of been passed down to me, too, in a way.

PARKER: I mean, that's kind of the impetus for this story.

S CARRILLO: Yep (crying). So I wanted to find a way to ask my dad about this. And so my last question, right before he had to take the beans off the stove and head out to play a show with his band, was, was this enough? Does it hurt that he'll never officially find his tribe?

B CARRILLO: You know, I had wondered if I was going to be affected by that. But it hasn't because I am completely satisfied with who I am and what family I belong to, however they recognize themselves, however they see themselves. They see me as I see me, and that's all I care about.

PARKER: Oh, Bear.


PARKER: And that's our show. You can find more about this episode on our website,

S CARRILLO: Special thanks to my family who are very much a part of this story but didn't make it in this piece. My mom, Debin (ph), my brothers, Cheyenne and Elijah, my sister Sierra (ph), my cousins Candace and Leslie, and my aunt Raylene. And also shout out to my dad's band, who played us out.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: (Singing) Bear's got his daughters all the way across the coast back to his home. He's going to be an NPR superstar.

PARKER: We'd also like to thank Leah Donnella, Sam Yellowhorse Kesler, Allison Herrera and many, many friends and colleagues who listened to this story and helped shape it.

S CARRILLO: This episode was produced and made possible by the incomparable Jess Kung. They visited my family with me, pet a lot of dogs and made me talk to my feelings after every interview. And I could not have done this without them.

PARKER: This episode was edited by Dalia Mortada and Steve Drummond. It was engineered by Gilly Moon. And shoutout to the rest of the CODE SWITCH fam - Christina Cala, Alyssa Jeong Perry, Gene Demby, Diba Mohtasham, Thomas Lu, Karen Grigsby Bates, Lori Lizarraga, LA Johnson and Veralyn Williams. Our intern is Yordanos Tesfazion.

S CARRILLO: I'm Sequoia Carrillo.

PARKER: I'm B.A. Parker.

S CARRILLO: Bye, y'all.

PARKER: Hydrate.


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