Prior to 2013 I was considered, by some, to be an anti-adoption activist, specifically with regard to American Indian child adoption. And there was good reason: I wrote fiercely about adoption as an aspect of historic trauma. I vehemently questioned the moral role of legislation in determining and defining the legitimacy of a family, a person, a representative of an ethnic group. Adoptions were bad; staying within family/community was good. As I saw it, there was no middle ground.
My world, that year, would be shaken to the core and turned upside down. It’s difficult, then, to hold fast to your perspective. In fact, I couldn’t. I had no other choice, but to embrace my new reality.
It’s all about survival.
The Flathead Indian reservation was a place I’d wanted to call home for most of my life. And in a way, it was. I am a tribal member; I spent the first eighteen months living with my birth family, before being adopted by a white couple. I spent most of my life trying to return. So, in 2013, for the month of June, that is where I went to write my memoir.
A friend lent me her condo, one that rested a mere fifty feet from the shores of Flathead Lake, and I sat at the dining table, or on the couch in the living room and wrote, sometimes for eleven hours a day. Breaks gave me time to visit brothers and sisters, aunts and uncles, cousins and friends. However, most of my time was spent with my sister, Ronni, who introduced me to the land and the people as much as she could. This place, these visits, informed me about my family, thereby informing me about my removal, but ultimately, informing me about myself.
Many adoptees dream of going home and some write of that homecoming as healing. For me it wasn’t healing; it was destabilizing. It forced me to discard my rose-colored glasses and see my birth family and the community in which they lived as they existed, not as I wanted them to be. In doing so, I had to face a couple of very important truths that are entirely side-stepped in the adoption debate: sometimes there are very good reasons children are removed from their families. And sometimes there are very good reasons they cannot be placed with extended family. The former I’ll get to in a few moments; the latter was purely economics. My grandparents, as well as most of my aunts and uncles, were already caring for several of their grandchildren, or their nieces and nephews, in addition to their own. They were not able to take in three more, my sister and brother and me.
Not on their limited incomes and resources.
Thoughts of my adoption and the reasons for it were quickly shunted aside at the arrival of our first grandson, Riley, in November of 2012. In September of 2013, he began vomiting blood and was immediately airlifted to Children’s Hospital Colorado, where he was met on the tarmac by the liver-team. They rushed him to the Pediatric Intensive Care Unit, which is where he and our son and his life lived for three months, while we waited for a pediatric liver. Day after day I walked by glass doors whose rooms contained children fighting for their lives while adults stood helplessly by. On December 13, 2013, we were one of those helpless adults; Riley had lost the fight. The pediatric liver never arrived.
My world, once strong and unbending, became liquid with my cancer diagnoses, which punctuated, like parentheses, Riley’s passing. Three weeks before his death I’d been diagnosed with breast cancer; three weeks after I’d been diagnosed with uterine cancer. I stopped asking what more could happen next. I didn’t want to know. January was surgeries; February, March and April were chemo; May was quiet, allowing me to gain my strength to begin the daily radiation treatments that would continue throughout June and July. It was in the midst of those treatments that I lost my mom, the woman who’d adopted me.
Mom was my rock. She provided me with copious amounts of love and a sense of safety, guiding me through the turbulent years of adolescence, youth adulthood and raising my own family. But she didn’t just care for me; she taught me everything she felt was important for me to know. There was the home stuff, the cooking, sewing, the canning. But there was also the life stuff. Like how to make guests feel welcome: “You always offer a guest something to eat and drink before you do anything else.” The value of education: “That’s the one thing no one can ever take away from you.” And the appreciation of the wonders experienced every single day. On our spring walks, she’d point out bluebells, or exclaim over the explosive yellows and purples of pansies. Year-round she stared in awe at the brilliant color of sunsets, and tried, successfully, to capture them in her paintings. And when I got older, she addressed power and legal records, specifically regarding adoption records: “No one should know anything about you that you don’t know about yourself.”
Although she was successful in her guidance, she couldn’t fully bridge the gap of what it meant to be white, raising an American Indian child. And I couldn’t talk about it with her. I didn’t want to admit to the racial slurs that were cast in my direction, the way teachers treated me, as if I were not very bright, the way I could have friends at school, but many times wasn’t invited to their homes, unless they belonged to a lower income class. I was aware of the stigma; I just didn’t know where it came from. And I didn’t want to admit that somehow that stigma was my fault.
So it was difficult talking with her about my anthropology research on American Indian transracial adoption that I began in my mid-forties, when I was strong enough to really exhume all those experiences, those memories, and to talk about them at length with others who, like me, had been American Indian raised in white families.
For two years that I’d worked on my master’s degree I’d been able to side-step the topic. Mom knew I was taking classes, but she didn’t know what they were about, or why I was taking them. I never told her. She had no idea of the tears that coursed down my face as I sat in my advisor’s office and related the stories of Native adoptees, the stories they told me when I interviewed them. She didn’t know the havoc those stories wreaked within my spirit. But as my defense day loomed closer, a mere two weeks away, I wanted her there. I needed her there, and felt she deserved to be there.
I issued the invitation while driving us to lunch one afternoon.
“What is your research about?” she asked after I broached the topic. “I don’t think you’ve ever told me.” It’s amazing how certain memories become etched in our minds, held with delicate strength in time and space. Because although it was more than ten years ago, I can still recall driving down College Avenue in early April. The black pavement of the street was edged by brilliant green grass, over which grew tall birches, their swollen buds holding the promise of spring.
As I drove, I explained about historic trauma, the Indian Adoption Project and its role in legislating child placement for Indian kids. I heard her silence, but knew it wasn’t angry, but just quiet. However, for me, it was an uncomfortable silence, heavily laden with too many possibilities for interpretation. I ended it, blurting, “It isn’t about you, Mom. It’s about me, what it was like to be me trying to live in this place surrounded by so many people who looked so different than me, and had expectations as to what I should be, and how I should act. It’s not about you. You’re the best mom I could have ever asked for.”
The silence continued. It stopped the air from moving, it stopped my ability to think, to breathe. It stopped time. Finally Mom asked, her voice trembling, “You mean you came available because of a government program? That I took you away from your family?”
Pain wrapped in confusion.
My words were out and I couldn’t take them back. Ever.
Two weeks later, Mom sat at my defense and listened to my argument that the Indian Adoption Project was ‘tragically successful’ as a continuation of various and sundry assimilation programs. I watched her carefully as she nodded, and smiled. She congratulated me, and then she accepted congratulations from my professors for raising a strong daughter. I saw then, that her love had no boundaries.
Even though it hurt, she supported my activism.
My experiences as a child, a sister, a mother and an aunt have all been tinged by adoption. With every turn of the identiy kaleidoscope, colors and textures and patterns burst and reform anew, so much so that I no longer know what that original pattern was supposed to be. All I know is there is a certain guilt that goes with my experiences as an adoptee.
When I think about Mom and our conversation, I so badly wanted to repair the anguish caused by this outside thing, this event that was forced on us, that had to be accepted by us. Except there is no rule book to describe how to go about achieving that acceptance.
After Riley died and Mom died, after the completion of my cancer treatments and Rick’s cancer treatments–he’d been diagnosed two years before, and after the first wave of grief (but certainly not the last) had passed, I paused for just a moment. And in that pause I felt the fabric of my existence rip, destroying the narrow kaleidoscope that defined family, that informed my life.
I was born in 1959, long before the Indian Child Welfare Act of 1978 had been legislated. My research, in my forties, clearly indicated that the primary purpose of placing over a third of American Indian children with white families was assimilation. My adoption, like nearly every other transracial adoption, was a closed adoption. This means our names were changed; our families, our tribes and nation, erased. Our entire identity was kept locked away in files that could be only opened by court order, trusting you could find a sympathetic judge. Therefore, finding our way home would be almost impossible. That’s how it was meant to be. We were not supposed to ‘be’ Indian, we were supposed to become members of the dominant society, with full and complete access to the American Dream.
Except it didn’t really work out that way. Because in the dominant culture we still looked Indian on the outside, and that’s how we were judged, forced to carry a burden of history that we didn’t understand.
Yes, I paid a social price for physically being Indian, and yes, I paid a social price for acting white; yes, I wished that I’d been allowed to know my birth-family; yes, for too many years I had no idea who I was or who I was supposed to be; and, yes, I resented the social Durkheim-ian ‘facts’ that were being forced on me, ascribing my characteristics, my behaviors, my way of moving in a white world. On one hand I was labeled a dirty Indian; on the other, I was labeled a traitor to my race.
The voices that whispered to my on the darkest of nights from the edges of isolation, pecked away at my integrity, my whole-ness of being. White voices: why do you look so different from your parents? Do you speak Indian? You’re adopted? I’m so sorry. Do an Indian dance for me. Do you live in a teepee? You know, all Indian girls are sluts. Indian voices: why do you talk funny? You sound white. What do you mean you don’t know who your family is? You dance like a white girl. You’re not Indian, so don’t ever think you’re one. You weren’t raised on the rez, so you have no idea what it’s like to be Indian.
Except I do. Assimilation has affected every single one of us. Adoptees are the only ones who can’t ignore that fact.
Which explains the depression I’d fallen into in my early thirties, when I told the therapist stories of my incompetency of being a mom, or a wife, sometimes wrapping those stories in racial discord. Race and gender were concepts therapists understood back in the day. Our society had lived through the tumultuous ‘60s with the Black Power Movement, the Red Power movement, Women’s liberation and the burning of bras. But child adoption? It was a good thing, even if race was involved. So, whatever issues I had weren’t a result of my adoption.
It took me many years to gain the strength to admit that my depressions, the ones I went to therapists for, were really about my incompetency at being me.
ICWA was established in 1978 to provide a measure of protection from the ugliness. It promised us that we would be part of the weft and warp of the fabric that provided definitions of the Native family and Native community. It said that we couldn’t be removed from this core unless there were absolutely no other options left. ICWA is important legislation and it needs to be followed; it’s the law. But it isn’t without complications when we begin to examine the fabric of Native America under the harsh light of post-colonization.
See here? Rub it between your fingers. It is fragile, so worn in places as to be tattered, the edges frayed. There is no needle large enough to mend all these holes, and there are too few people who can weave the fabric faster than it is unraveling. The problem is there aren’t enough healthy Native families to take us all in, we children of the trauma, with more on the way. Therefore, some will still be outplaced, and ICWA cannot wipe out the discomfort, the awkwardness we feel in the gathering storm, when we begin to question who we are. Or when others force us to answer for our outside status. Those feelings can’t ever be taken away; they are just part of the fabric of living in a post-colonized world.
So what do we do about children who fall into tatters, with no safety net to catch them? How do we fairly define the ‘best interests of the child’, while also keeping the interests of the family, the community, at the forefront of these decisions? Difficult questions require thoughtful answers. And here, in this space, there is no room for absolutes.
Therefore, I’m left with questions.
What do I want to come from my experience? I want wars and genocide to stop so kids aren’t the bargaining chips. And I want birth families to remain accessible, to the child and to the families with whom the child is placed. Every single person in this so-called adoption triad plays a crucial role in developing and supporting an individual’s strength, a community’s strength.
How do I support ICWA and not throw my life, or my mother(s)’ under the bus? Mom just wanted a child after six miscarriages. Is that so awful? Am I supposed to feel guilty that I was the one she chose? That I was the child she was given? My birth-mom disappeared for weeks, months, at a time; leaving her eight other children with other people to raise until she reappeared back in their lives. Am I supposed to feel guilty for questioning whether she was really the best person to raise me, as she abdicated all guidance for my life, my future? By saying yes, I invalidate the feelings of my birth uncle, his wife, of my birth brother, who are quick to point out the positives of this placement.
Why do I feel I am responsible in fixing this? In hiding the detritus of ideologies in contention? In mending the fabric so people can’t tell how badly it is ripped?
I can’t. I have my own ideologies at war. Without my placement I would never have been given a chance to be at this table, be a part of this important conversation about child placement. But I also don’t believe that dividing my family and removing them from my sight, or me from theirs, was healthy for any of us. I needed them; they needed me. We needed us to be more than ghosts of past lives.
Therefore, I refuse to feel guilty for what was; it was all out of my control. I can’t even feel responsible for what will be; there are much larger players running the game. I, then, am left with a need to feel grateful; to be anything else is to invite further destruction. And I’m too tired. And I feel too old.
I can only feel grateful. for my birth-family and their acceptance not only of me, but of my experiences. I hope they understand that despite my absence, my re-appearance, my questions, that they are so very important to me. I am grateful for my mom, for just being a mom and not being the white mom of a little Indian girl. I hope she understood how much I needed her strength and guidance for the work I do now. And I am grateful for my family and friends, for sticking with me on this tumultuous journey; which, at times, was almost self-destructive in nature. I hope they understand they were the net on which I rested.
And I’m grateful that I’ve come to accept who I am: a breathing human being who is a living remnant of the genocide. I can’t control who I was supposed to be; I can only control who I am now. I’ve raised my children to be respectful and kind and generous and productive. I live in communities where I’m accepted and find social circles where I fit in. I educate those who are ignorant of what it means to be American Indian in a post-colonized world. And I refuse to be labeled.
I no longer advocate. I no longer argue birth OR blood, real OR constructed. By doing so I realize I’d painted myself into a corner, and needed desperately to find some middle ground, because that space of complicated fault lines is where I live. In between. It’s not a bad place to be. It’s comfortable. For me, it is the most honest niche in which I ever resided.
This article first appeared in the anthology Stolen Generations, Trace L. Hentz, Editor.
(c) Susan Harness,. All Rights Reserved
Susan Devan Harness, an American Indian transracial adoptee, is a member of the Confederated Salish Kootenai Tribes. She is the author of Mixing Cultural Identities Through Transracial Adoption: Outcomes of the Indian Adoption Project (1958-1967). Her new book, Bitterroot: A Memoir of Transracial Adoption, will be published Fall of 2018 by the University of Nebraska Press, in the American Indian Lives series.