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Bonded by culture

Leonard and Tangerine Robles of Lodi embrace foster children of Native American heritage — and help them connect with their cultural roots

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Posted: Friday, November 11, 2011 7:53 am

With his colorful feathers blowing in the wind on top of his traditional Native American headdress, Alex Robles stomps his moccasins into the ground as the bells around his ankle ring through the air. 

Eight-year-old Alex is showing off his grassland dance as his two youngest brothers dance around him. Jesse and Jacob, who are both 3 years old, are warrior dancers, their mom, Tangerine Robles, said. 

“Usually kids get to pick the style that they dance in, but because these two came into the world with such a struggle, I decided they would be warriors, which is a traditional dancer,” she said.  

Tangerine and her husband, Leonard, live in a typical house in south Lodi on Cherrywood Drive, but their lives are anything but typical. 

During the last eight years, they have taken into their home more than 50 foster children who had nowhere else to go. 

Some of them stayed only one night. But six of them have become permanent members of the family. 

With all of the children who have passed through the couple’s home, they have celebrated the Native American culture and taught them different customs, including dancing, beading and a respect for nature.  

“It’s important to keep their heritage going. We are losing a lot of elders and our heritage is dying off, and so you try and teach your kids as much as you can, so they can keep it going. A lot of people think we are not around anymore,” Leonard said. 

‘I would never think about walking in their shoes’

Leonard Robles grew up in Bakersfield and always thought he was Hispanic. It was only about 15 years ago that the 40-year-old found out he was a member of Yaqui and Chumash tribes.

He had been attending powwows since he was a child, and always felt a connection with Native American culture, so he was not surprised.  

He met his wife, Tangerine, 18 years ago while working at a car dealership in Stockton. She is mostly Norweigan and German, but has embraced Native American culture, and the couple started to attend powwows around the state almost every weekend. 

They started fostering eight years ago because they missed having young kids around. They also have two adult children and a 22-year-old goddaughter that Leonard raised from birth. 

“The house was too quiet,” Leonard said. 

Now the home is bustling and filled with the voices of the five Native American children they have adopted. They also are in the process of adopting a sixth child, 1-year-old Marcus, who is sleeping soundly on Leonard’s chest.

The six kids are three pairs of siblings from three different Native American tribes.    

The man with long black hair talks calmly but with a noticeable sense of pride when describing his family. 

They have always taken in children, whether it is taking care of Leonard’s goddaughter or an especially difficult foster child. Their house is open and welcoming with family friends stopping by just to say hello.  

Through the process of fostering and adoption, the couple said they have gone through the ups and downs of caring for kids who come from broken homes. 

At first, all of the kids are shy because they are around strangers, but then they start to open up. 

“It’s amazing what their life’s been. I would never think about walking in their shoes,” Leonard said. 

They have seen kids who’ve suffered abuse, incest or lived with hoarders in filth. They have helped children who were exposed to drugs and alcohol when their moms were pregnant. 

One little girl would freak out when they put her in a crib, and they found out that was where her parents had left her all the time in a house with no food. Her 4-year-old brother was terrified to move because he had been continuously threatened.

With all of the kids, they encourage them to go play outside and get dirty — which many of the kids have never done before. 

“It is amazing to see that kids would go outside, and it was new to them. They just needed someone to pay attention to them and not be cooped up in a room,” Tangerine said. 

Adopting Native American children

Leonard’s cousin traced his Native American roots back to the 1400s. Even though his dad originally did not share with his children that they were Native American, he has started attending powwows. Leonard’s sister also comes, but the rest of his siblings have shown no interest. 

“Back in the day when my parents were younger, it was a shameful thing, so they just picked Hispanic and left it at that,” Leonard said. 

Since he found out, he has talked more with tribal elders to find out the traditional way of doing things. His house is covered in Native American items that he has either made or purchased. 

Six years ago, the couple started focusing on fostering Native American children, and six months later in September, Jasmine arrived at their house. 

“I remember picking her up and she cried the whole way home,” Tangerine said.

Jasmine eventually opened up and became talkative, and her sister, Alyssa, joined her several months later, Tangerine said.  

The two girls are registered with the Sioux tribe in South Dakota. Alex and Jacob are half-brothers and are registered with the Choctaw. Jesse and Marcus, who is the 1-year-old in the process of being adopted, are Sioux out of Montana, but they are not registered because they are not a high enough percentage.    

All of the Robles’ adopted children are registered with Leonard’s tribes. The kids can receive health care or money for school through the tribes. 

The kids were all given Native American middle names. 

Jasmine’s middle name is Ojinjinka, which means rose, Jesse’s name is Hototo, which means warrior spirit who sings and Alex’s name is Sowingwa, which means white deer tail. 

The two girls were allowed to chose their first names and Alex was given a choice of names. 

Every time a child is adopted, Leonard gets them each an eagle feather or for the younger ones, an eagle plume, which usually come from a juvenile bald eagle. 

“Eagle feathers are a top honor, and the elders give you one for whatever reason they want,” Leonard said. 

The children bring them to powwows or other gatherings and learn to care for them. When they are home, they are stored away for safe keeping. 

“You teach your kids about honoring them and taking care of them and putting them away,” Leonard said. 

The kids often dance at the powwows.

The family has a staff with two eagle feathers at the top to represent the couple, and then nine feathers for their children. 

Leonard and Stephanie, his 22-year-old daughter, both know how to bead traditional Native American pieces, and Stephanie is teaching a free class on it for the community. They have to get the beads from specific stores in Stockton. 

Tangerine has learned how to make outfits for the two younger boys. They two have breast plates made out of beads, side drops and bibs with their hand prints on it, a stick, a shield and a roach, which is a traditional Native American head piece.  

The children have performed at Borchardt Elementary School, and many of their friends complimented them on their performance. 

“My friends liked my outfit and the way I danced,” Alyssa said. 

The family started Red Circle in 2008 and started going to the Lodi Downtown Farmers Market this year to educate people about the Native American community in Lodi, which Leonard says is surprisingly large. 

“When we started doing the Downtown farmers market, it was funny because a lot of people would come up to us and say, ‘Where did you guys come from?’ I said, ‘I live in the same neighborhood as you do,’” he said. 

Last year, Red Circle fed 35 families Thanksgiving dinner and gave 50 families Christmas dinner and presents for the kids. The group is having a salmon and pasta fundraiser on Nov. 19 to raise money for the holidays. 

Stephanie said she appreciates that her parents focus on the culture, because it has lead to her discovering beading barrettes and dancing. 

“It is important to know where I came from,” she said.

Contact reporter Maggie Creamer at maggiec@lodinews.com. Read her blog at www.lodinews.com/blogs/citybuzz.

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