OKLAHOMA CITY – About half a million people in Oklahoma are documented members of a Native American tribe, between 10 and 15 percent of the statewide population.
We know Indian tribes have their own land, their own government, in some cases their own health care system and their own courts.
Occasionally, cultures overlap and Native American legal issues find their way into U.S. district court.
Such was the case for baby Ashlyn, a rare case of a tribe fighting against their own member.
For Ashlyn Rae it was never a conventional birth story.
Born to parents who didn’t want to keep her, a birth mom and biological dad who hand-picked an adoptive family.
But for Bill and Alicia Towler it was a dream come true.
Unable to conceive they were in the hospital room the moment Ashlyn was born.
But when little Ashlyn was about a month old, the legal battle began over who would get to be her mom and dad.
“There’s no holding back,” Alicia Towler said. “We went into this with everything we had. We just knew if we lost her then it was going to be that much harder but it was going to be worth it.”
Ashlyn is a member of the Cherokee Nation.
Her biological mom is four percent Native American, Ashlyn is two percent.
“At every turn I would look at this and say, ‘This doesn’t make any sense,’” Bill Towler said.
According to the Indian Child Welfare Act, a federal law from 1978, as long as the tribe considers you a member they have a voice in your adoption.
Oklahoma Attorney Jim Ikard has done other Cherokee adoptions but none where the tribe fought as they did for baby Ashlyn.
“They went from, ‘Oh we just want to make sure that the law is followed,’ to ‘We’ll decide who gets this baby. Give us this baby.’”
The Cherokee tribe intervened in Ashlyn’s adoption to the Towlers when the baby was about 1 month old.
It is not the first time the Cherokee nation has been a powerful voice in an adoption.
Perhaps you’ve heard about the “Baby Veronica” case which was before the U.S. Supreme Court.
“What it very much will have an affect on are future cases of Indian children in Oklahoma and across the rest of the country because whatever the Supreme Court says, it’s applicable in all 50 states,” Cherokee Nation Assistant Attorney General Chrissi Nimmo said.
In Veronica’s case, her biological dad used his status as a Cherokee Indian to get his daughter back two years after her adoption to a non-Indian couple from South Carolina.
The Supreme Court ruled against the Indian Child Welfare Act and sent baby Veronica back to her adoptive parents who raised her in South Carolina in June 2013.
The big difference between baby Veronica and baby Ashlyn is the biological parents.
Both of Ashlyn’s birth parents wanted their daughter to be adopted by the Towlers and no one else.
“The birth parents said we will never ever place this child up for adoption with anybody else but the Towlers, the people we met and we wanted to adopt our child,” Robert Boren said, the Towlers’ attorney. “I told the Cherokees that they will never give their consent for anyone else to adopt this child but that really didn’t make a difference to the Cherokees.”
In fact, the birth mom filed a request for anonymity so the Cherokee nation wouldn’t even be notified about the birth of her daughter.
“It was either adoption or abortion; there was no way I could handle another baby,” Ashlyn’s birth mother said, who spoke on the condition of her anonymity.
Even her own family doesn’t know about the adoption.
She said she had no hesitation to put Ashlyn up for adoption.
“I knew that was the best thing,” the birth mother said.
In her early 20s, Ashlyn’s birth mother already has three other kids.
Ashlyn’s pregnancy was unplanned and the bio-mom selected the Towlers so Ashlyn could have opportunities she knew she could not provide.
For 15 months, as baby Ashlyn started crawling, walking and talking, living as the adopted daughter of Bill and Alicia Towler, her case was getting legs of its own.
Despite the wishes of their own tribal member, the Cherokee Nation fought all the way to district court.
A district judge would decide who would get custody of baby Ashlyn at trial.
“It got hot at times,” attorney Jim Ikard said. “We were very frustrated on their continued attack on their own tribal member’s choice and their arrogance that (they) knew what was best for this Indian child is to be in touch with their Indian heritage and only an Indian family can do that.”
The case went to trial last September and both of Ashlyn’s birth parents testified on behalf of the Towlers.
Judge Allen Welch made his ruling last December, a win for the adoptive family.
Baby Ashlyn will stay in the home where she has lived since she was born, the home her parents chose for her.
The Cherokee Nation did not appeal the ruling.
The adoption was final as of January.
The Towlers would like to adopt another baby sometime in the future.
They said they will not chose to adopt a Native American baby next time.
The Cherokee Nation has spoken publicly both to the national and local media about the baby Veronica case.
However, they refused to make any comment about the baby Ashlyn case.