This letter is heart to heart from one woman to another. It also explains how “The Girl in the Photograph” came to be in the photograph and in the news.
You won’t remember me. You were only 5 when we met.
But I remember you, and I’ve never stopped wondering what happened to you and praying for you.
We met 29 years ago when I was a reporter at The Bismarck Tribune, the daily newspaper closest to Standing Rock Reservation where you grew up.
For a journalist, everybody they write about becomes part of their larger story. But nobody has embedded in my psyche the way you did. You stood out all these years as a highly memorable human being even though you were little more than knee high.
You were so young and innocent. So determined. So broken, yet so bright.
My memories of you
You often appeared sad and inside yourself – for good reason. Through my research I learned about the parental abuse and neglect and then the foster home beatings. The foster home supervisor told me that tossing you – then only 2 – like a ball around a room had been a drunken house-party game. Your arms and leg were broken; hair pulled out at the roots.
And, finally after your grandparents got you out of that foster home, they had to take you to a hospital in Bismarck where doctors rebroke your bones to set them properly. The foster parents had left you in a room, alone to heal in a twisted way.
Humming jingles and rocking
The second time I met you was particularly hard on me because it was a particularly hard time for you. Your deep, knowing eyes stared off to nowhere as you hummed the same tune over and over. You rocked back and forth, over and over, in your Grandma Gladys and Grandpa Reginald Bird Horse’s living room. Grandma tried to coax you into saying “hello,” but you acted as if you were alone in the room. You kept humming and rocking.
Your grandma said you did that sometimes, humming jingles you memorized from TV commercials.
You didn’t complain or cry, but every once in a while a tear ran down your cheek.
In the news for tragic reasons
A Tribune photographer and I had come that cold winter day to see how you were doing, and also to visit with your grandparents and to get a photo of you.
You behaved as if the photographer wasn’t even there as he moved left and right for angles, moving within inches of your face for a closeup. You didn’t flinch or even notice him. You kept humming and rocking, over and over.
I’ve never forgotten that day.
The previous and next times we met you were less withdrawn. Your grandma coaxed you into shaking my hand and speaking with me a bit. By meeting No. 4, you and other abused foster home children were the subject of a congressional investigation. I was the reporter and you were the subject. But the motherly side of me thought how wonderful it would be to have such a beautiful, strong little girl some day.
Rather than sit at those hearings, I wanted to scoop you up and take you to the best and biggest playground where you could swing and slide and giggle and forget all the horrible things for a while.
‘Human beings were abused’
I’m sure you remember what a towering man your grandfather was – probably 6 feet, 4 inches tall. And his voice was just as big. The first time I met him he stood over my desk and said in his huge, solemn bass voice: “There was a crime that occurred here. Human beings were abused. But nothing was done.”
He was the one who alerted me and the newspaper to the serious foster home safety issues at Standing Rock. Besides you, four of your siblings were abused in foster homes. Your grandpa wanted justice. He tried tribal police. He tried the feds. Then he brought it to the newspaper.
You became emblematic: A ‘poster child’
Your grandfather was a smart man. The story of the foster parents who hurt you so badly appeared in the newspaper. The wrongness angered then-Congressman Byron Dorgan, D-N.D., and he held congressional field hearings in Bismarck on safety in tribal foster homes. Congressmen from many states came — and so did you.
It was hard not to feel protective toward you. You’d been through so much in so few years. At first I wondered why your grandpa allowed us to photograph you on several occasions. I realized later that he knew a photo of a suffering child would become emblematic of the larger problem with foster homes.
He was right.
Eventually, the federal inspector general for Indian Affairs conducted a probe of foster care on Standing Rock.
It’s impossible to get justice for the injustice done to you, but your grandparents did finally get answers and action. They probably made conditions better for other little girls and boys who were in need of foster care.
Impossible to forget
Even as I had a family of my own and changed careers, I never forgot you.
After 17 years in journalism, I left the newspaper world and went back to school and then became a professor. About every seven to 10 years professors get a sabbatical — like a restful professional development year — and I seriously considered using the time to find you and discover how your life had turned out and write something … maybe an article, maybe a book.
My sense was always that you were in the Twin Cities. I knew your mother had lived there, and I thought you may gravitate there as an adult. But at my sabbatical time in 2016 two of our three children were still at home and in junior high. It just wasn’t the right time for me to leave home and look for you.
Serendipitous: Connecting with Dorgan
Earlier this month I was initially envious upon learning that you’d reached Dorgan through Facebook in 2016 and the two of you had met and made a lasting connection — one that led to his new book based on your life story.
About two minutes into the early pages of his book, my envy turned to gratitude because it was so clear he has your best interests at heart.
Plus, as a lifelong public servant, he knew how to get you the basics of life you needed plus specialized therapy you require for post-traumatic stress disorder. It was all for the best that you came across him and connected. I have much less to offer you.
Sen. Dorgan was a friend and helper to you back then. He’s a friend and helper now.
I want to close by sincerely saying I hope to meet you again some day when you feel the time is right in your journey toward better health.
Prayers for healing,
Deneen Gilmour, Ph.D., lives in Fargo and is a journalism professor at Minnesota State University Moorhead.