Buffy Sainte-Marie, Brule, Star Nayea, filmmaker Chris Eyre and newspaper publisher Paul DeMain all have something in common as Musicians and raised by white families .
Trace A. DeMeyer
Musicians Buffy Sainte-Marie, Brule, Star Nayea, filmmaker Chris Eyre and newspaper publisher Paul DeMain all have something in common.
They are all adoptees, raised by white families, and all are unquestionably Indigenous. Each has achieved status for a talent or gift they have and each has been honored as a Native American.
I become a striped fer de lance now in the jungle of the world slithering toward tomorrow detoured by falling trees and darkening rivers I flee the jungle of the world crawl deeper beneath the imagery of truth my elongated ancestral line tasted begging the poisonous fatal hope filtering through my fangs to bite into flashing broken memories and continue
Identity is a hot button in Indian Country these days. Some say that if you are raised without your culture, you are not Indian. I think these individuals would beg to differ. You can’t remove a culture that courses through your veins and sticks in your bones.
“Unci, our Grandmothers, prayed to the Great Spirit for us to return,” Sandy White Hawk said when we met in 2001. We are both orphans, adoptees with Native American ancestry. Sandy is Sicangu Dakota, from the Rosebud reservation in South Dakota. Her mother enrolled her before she was taken at age three and raised by missionaries.
We met at Wicoicage Ake Un–Ku–Pi, a ceremony Sandy organized for the First Nations Orphans Association, an organization set up to help the lost ones and to help those who lost children. The first ceremony that wiped the tears of the orphans, the lost ones, was hosted by the Menominee tribe on their Wisconsin reservation in 2001.
“The vision of a song for adoptees came to me, an honor song that would help those looking to find their way back. I shared this vision with Chris Leith, a Prairie Island Dakota Elder and Spiritual Advisor to the National Indian Child Welfare Association,” Sandy White Hawk said. “He asked Jerry Dearly, an Oglala Lakota, to make the song. I hoped the song would also help heal family members who have lost children to the system.”
“Orphans be strong, listen to our traditions, they will give you strength, hear the Drum’s voice, it will tell you things,” … this is sung at each Wiping the Tears ceremony. It is the Wablencia Honor Song for First Nation orphans, translated from Lakota to English.
Dakota spiritual elder Chris Leith co-founded the First Nations Orphan Association with White Hawk after the two met at a World Prayer Day ceremony in Costa Rica in 1999. He knew a ceremony was needed. Leith brought in Jerry Dearly, who wrote the honor song.
“It’s a healing,” Leith said, of the song and ceremony, “to bring back that sense of belonging, of dignity, of identity, and that love and tender care that everyone is searching for.”
Thousands of Native American children were taken from their families and tribes in the years of 1941-1978 across North America. In the 1950s and 1960s, the Indian Adoption Project placed hundreds of Native American children with white parents, the first national effort to place an entire child population transracially and transculturally.
This was the white man’s way of assimilating the Indian, to break their spirit, removing babies and children to be raised by non-Native families, and by building Indian boarding schools far away from the reservation.
Since the late 1970s, the horrors at the boarding school and sexual abuse started making headlines and are now being investigated. Five or more churches in Canada are being sued and may be ordered to pay reparations.
When boarding schools opened in the 1800s, Christian Missionaries and Churches abhorred the savagery of these pagans so much they decided to convert children – so they scrubbed their tongues with lye soap for speaking a word of their language, forced them to speak English, wiped out their customs by erasing any trace of their identity, cut off their hair and burned their clothing. Children were not allowed contact with their families. Some died trying to escape. Most were ordered to work there, keeping the school running and profitable.
I remember telling my Aunt Mary, a Catholic, about this and she didn’t believe me, that a church would do something like this. That history isn’t taught in your catechism class, I told her.
Tribes bent on saving themselves could do little to stop the theft of these future generations. Their grieving never stopped – it was yet another brutal disappointment, another form of genocide.
For adoptees, as young children we look in a mirror and know something is wrong. No one could discuss identity issues with you. You’re troubled and confused by what you see and feel. The feeling of being lost and abandoned never leaves you alone or gives you peace.
Some of my friends, who are also Native American adoptees, are opening up about their childhoods – even their suffering from mental or physical abuse. Not all were abused, but all felt a loss of identity. We agree that our identity is not mirrored back to us. You don’t look like anybody. You hate your own skin because you’re different, because you don’t look like mom and dad.
Sandy White Hawk told me that in one study, they found that taking a First Nations child from their family is more traumatic than being a prisoner of war. Imagine – there is more psychological trauma and damage to the adoptee than to a soldier imprisoned by enemies in wartime.
Of course adoptive parents were not made aware of this or told beforehand. It could have soured the federal government’s plan. Indian children were never studied for how they were damaged by removal but how well they adapted and assimilated.
Displacing tribal children came with a heavy price. Their adoption system failed in big ways, which eventually lead to the passage of the Indian Child Welfare Act of 1978. It’s a mess that few adult adoptees are willing to talk or write about.
I can’t speak for the others, but there are ancestors who keep you company while you are away from your tradition and culture. The ancestors never abandon you. You see them in dreams; they wake you with ideas. There are signs when you wake up to the natural world around you and feel the connection to your brothers, the four-leggeds and winged ones.
Your Indian friends, if you are lucky enough to have them growing up, talk to you in terms your heart can feel. They tell you every child has a gift. Tribes respect their children; they never laugh at them. They teach children to be humble, honorable, respectful, courageous, generous.
Our white parents don’t know this. It’s not that they don’t love us. They most certainly do, or else they wouldn’t have adopted us in the first place. They are just not prepared to deal with our spirit or our connection to being First Nations people, or how an indigenous person thinks.
What is remarkable about Buffy and so many others is their spirit was strong, strong enough to overcome the trauma. You follow a vision to be an artist, musician or writer. Being creative is an effective outlet for a grief this enormous. We connect to our tribal identity when we are ready. We open our adoptions and find our relations.
In June 2001, Child Welfare League Executive Director Shay Bilchik legitimated Native concerns, formally apologizing for the Indian Adoption Project at a meeting of the National Indian Child Welfare Association. He put the Child Welfare League of America on record in support of the Indian Child Welfare Act. “No matter how well intentioned and how squarely in the mainstream this was at the time,” he said, “it was wrong; it was hurtful; and it reflected a kind of bias that surfaces feelings of shame.”
(What disturbs me is that it took until 2001 for them to admit some 68% of Indian children were taken from their parents by actions sanctioned by the federal government.) Bilchik gave his public apology again in October 2001 at that first ceremony for First Nation adoptees in Wisconsin.
In the 1950s, many American Indians were moved from reservations into cities through the Relocation Program initiated by the federal government.
However, they were given no assistance in adjusting to the stresses of urban life. The combination of the Boarding School experience as well as adjusting to urban cities contributed to the breakup of many Indian families. It’s a cycle that continues even today.
In this century, there is no doubt that the physical discipline and sexual abuse experienced by the children at the boarding schools crept into the culture when they returned to their family as adults. Those scars need ceremony to heal and there is hope. Ceremonies that went underground didn’t disappear and are being held again, like the Lakota Sundance and the Anishinabe Midewin Lodge.
Unfortunately, tribes are not exactly prepared for adult adoptees who return. There is no tribal reunion office. For some of us, the return home is just more pain. It may take years to get acceptance for who you are. Parents may have already passed on or don’t want contact; some reservation still have stifling oppression or tribal rolls are closed. Some tribes are obviously more concerned with economic opportunities than they are with reclaiming lost ones, who need to connect with their relatives, attend ceremonies and be allowed time, maybe even years, to heal.
I have a friend, Daniel Grey Cloud. He’s Lakota. He knows this because he opened his adoption and located an uncle who told him his name. The uncle contacted Dan’s birthmother but she wanted no contact with Dan. The door to answers about his life slammed closed again. Dan was abandoned again. He has no information as to where to find his relatives or cousins, or even what band of Lakota or what reservation is his. There isn’t an instruction manual for this. Dan is lucky he learned his name.
White Hawk showed me one study on Indian adoptees from the 1980s. Those adoptees admitted they were depressed, suicidal, jobless or drug-dependent. Some had counseling; very few had opened their adoptions. White Hawk was first accepted by the Menominee people who gave her a sense of culture and identity – in a way they fostered her. She suffered from horrific childhood abuse and later alcohol addiction. After all that, she had the strength to find and meet her relatives in Rosebud. When you walk the walk, you can actually help others to heal while you heal yourself.
I cried at the first ceremony as if my heart was a broken dam. Rows and rows of adoptees filled the gymnasium and cried. The Menominee people graciously greeted each of us, welcomed us home and let us cry. I attended another ceremony, held at Indian Summer festival in Milwaukee, WI in 2002. White Hawk says more ceremonies are planned. She said any tribe can call out to its lost ones and create a welcome ceremony for them.
First Nations Orphans Association, based in Minnesota, now advises social workers and government agencies and holds workshops. They will travel and conduct the ceremony, when it can be arranged. White Hawk recently testified at a difficult child custody case in South Dakota. With a clear victory, she’s optimistic the courts are in favor of keeping Native children within the tribal family.
In 1978, I was 22 when I began searching for my family. It took 17 years to find my birth father, Earl Hiram Bland, from Illinois. Earl’s mother Lona Dell Harlow and her mother Mary Frances Morris get their Cherokee blood from James and Charles L. Morris from Baptist, Oklahoma, listed as Cherokee on the Chapman Rolls in 1852 and on the Dawes Rolls. Earl’s other grandmother Sarah Matthews was also Native, but I have yet to prove her tribal affiliation of Shawnee or Cherokee.
The family who adopted me through the Catholic Charities Bureau was not Indian. My favorite neighbors, three doors down, were Anishinabe (Ojibwe). My brother and I rode bikes, built snow forts and played baseball with their five kids. Without indoor plumbing, their kids shared one bedroom. They were the happiest kids I ever met. We lived at their house more than our own.
My childhood was dysfunctional in ways I will not get into, other than it was dominated by my father’s alcoholism. I was glad to grow up and move out. I could have become many things – bitter, depressed, suicidal or addicted. I think my ancestors took hold of me and gave me strength. I loved both of my adoptive parents, despite what I experienced and am still grateful for their love and acceptance. I never felt unwanted.
One summer, my parents took us to a Lumberjack festival and a pow wow in northern Wisconsin. The sound of the drum and the men singing filled my heart. Buffy Sainte-Marie sang. I could not tell anyone what I was feeling but it made me feel proud and different from the people I called mom and dad. I felt something stir inside me, something good. I never stopped hoping to find my birth parents, to know why they gave me away. After all these years, I have my answers. This is what I know: Your identity sings to you. It makes you understand your heart better. You learn patience. Your heart opens. You face disappointment. You may never get the acceptance you seek.
I often travel to Pine Ridge, SD, to see my Oglala Lakota sister Ellowyn, who gave me my name, Winyan Ohmanisa Waste La ke. Our friendship grew strong over a long period of time. She is my relative because she knows what is in my heart. She taught me we are all related, Mitakuye oyasin.
I am a journalist and writer now. Someday I will visit my Oklahoma reservation. I’ll be ready for whatever happens.
To learn more about First Nations Orphans Association, email Sandy White Hawk at: email@example.com.
~Trace A. DeMeyer
Trace A. DeMeyer (Tsalgi-Euro) is the author of One Small Sacrifice: Lost Children of the Indian Adoption Projects (2010) and lives in Greenfield, MA. Twitter: @Trace15; Facebook: facebook.com/Splitfeathers; http://about.me/Trace15. Trace’s account of opening her adoption can be found on her website: www.quantumdragonfly.com.