Before 1978, most Native American adopted children were taken into non-Indian families. Some of those "Lost Birds" have found a way to make peace with the past and reclaim their native culture.
The story about the arrest of white missionaries trying to adopt allegedly orphaned Haitian children struck a chord with me. Similar media stories about well meaning white celebrities adopting pretty babies of color from poor third world countries have also rubbed me the wrong way. You see, American Indians have a long history of white folks trying to help us by taking away our children. It is estimated that between 1941 and 1978, white parents adopted 35 percent of American Indians in the U.S., often forcibly. Indians have learned that no amount of good intention can wipe away the painful loss of our culture.
Not long ago, I traveled to Minneapolis as I worked on a story about the Lost Birds. The Lost Birds are those Indian people who were adopted by non-Indian families prior to 1978. More personal than I had realized, this story caught me by surprise; it touched the center of who I am as an Ojibwe woman and as a mother.
We adopted our son Danny from my tribe in 2005 when he was 7 months old. Danny came into our lives as though directed by an outside force. Both my husband I felt that he was meant to be raised by us and that he was meant to know he is an Ojibwe man. That “knowing” has been a deep wordless tie between us and one to which I feel all people, non Indian and otherwise, are entitled.
So, it was with some trepidation that I began a story about Rachel Kupcho, an Ojibwe women and her adoptive white parents. Would I be able to keep my feelings about interracial adoption in perspective?
I worried about this and other things during my flight to Minneapolis. Unexpectedly, I noticed the Mississippi River or Great River in the Ojibwe language as the plane descended into the Twin Cities. The power of that great water caught me by surprise, pinching my heart in a nameless, primordial way and I felt a homecoming not without pain. With relief, I recalled that in Ojibwe tradition, we women are the ones who care for the water and I was comforted. I thought of our traditional Ojibwe stories describing this connection with place and the land. Once again, I was awed by the wisdom and nuance of my culture that at once understands yet celebrates the ineffable. A wave of calm washed over me; I knew that the story would emerge in the way that it should.
In the end, I came to see that many mothers, Indian and non-Indian but all women who care for the water, built Rachel’s life and strength, like the Great River.
At first glance Rachel didn’t look like much of a Lost Bird to me. In fact she appeared to be just the opposite. Confident and beautiful, she strode around the Minneapolis American Indian Center with calm authority. She seemed to easily carry the pride that is so typical of an Anishinabikwe or young Ojibwe woman as she worked to organize the annual Gathering of Our Children and Returning Adoptees Powwow.
Sandy White Hawk has helped organize this powwow for several years. She is executive director of the First Nations Orphan Association, an organization that helps returning adoptees find their way back to their culture. Since Sandy suddenly took ill, Rachel stepped in at the last minute to coordinate the event. Organizing a powwow is no small task. There is quite a bit of protocol involved and the potential for drama is high. Rachel, however, seemed born to the task; to look at her I would have never suspected this was the first time she had overseen a powwow or that until a few years ago had had very little exposure to her culture. Like many who attended this powwow Rachel was adopted at birth and raised by white parents.
When the doors of the Indian Center opened up, people began to trickle in. It was easy to identify the Lost Birds. Their fear and guarded emotions seemed almost palpable as they stepped uncertainly into the gym. They were drawn by the sound of the drum that they may have been hearing for the first time on that day. Looking more deeply into their faces, I sensed hope, a hope that they might begin to return home.
I noticed Rachel ushering people into the gym with a calm smile and I wondered how she has come by such self-assurance. The simple yet enormous answer begins with her parents, Keith and Lisa Kupcho. Typically, they are in the background, quietly helping set up tables for the event. They discretely excuse themselves once the heavy lifting is finished. They will return when their daughter needs them later in the evening for the Wanblenica or Orphan’s Song and ceremony.
Like so many Indian children prior to 1978, Rachel was given up for adoption by her birth mother from the White Earth Ojibwe Reservation in Minnesota and placed with a non-Indian family. Rachel, however, does not share the typical Indian adoptee history that is so often filled with stories of physical, sexual and emotional abuse. Painful and more insidious than the physical abuse that adoptees report, has been a rejection of their natural spirit. The shame of being Indian and therefore inferior is a lasting wound that remains open for countless adoptees. Too many try to medicate these wounds with alcohol and drugs, vainly trying to ease their pain.
This generation of “Lost Birds” as they are often called, resulted from the well -intentioned U. S federal policy of assimilation that sought to integrate Indians into mainstream culture. The policy was intended to help lift Indians out of the poverty and social ills that plagued the reservations. Instead, it supported the near wholesale removal of children from their homes, families and cultures. Before the 1978 Indian Child Welfare Act, that gave tribes jurisdiction over their own families, thousands of Indian children who entered the social services system were adopted into non-Indian families. In their misguided efforts to help raise Indian people from poverty, churches and social service agencies mistook Indian culture as the culprit in the community’s problems. Therefore all things “Indian” were to be stamped out. Language, culture and the Indian tradition of child rearing that includes extended family, were viewed as backward and wrong. Understandably, many Indian adoptees internalized these messages and have had difficulty returning to their cultures. Rachel Kupcho, however, seems to have made her way back to her people with relative ease, achieving a comfort level that is enviable.
To know her story fully, I must meet all the mothers, the water caregivers who have contributed to her life and journey home.
Rachel is one of four ethnically diverse children adopted and raised by Lisa and Keith Kupcho in Chanhassen, Minnesota about 20 miles outside of Minneapolis. Small and brown at the front, the Kupcho home sits a bit further back from the street than do the other houses. I imagine a certain sweet shyness about the house. Inside, the walls are richly covered with paintings, photos and prints of women of color and their children, lots of children. Photos of the Kupcho children and a seemingly endless convoluted photo storyline of their friends’ children and grandchildren are everywhere.
We visited over coffee in her kitchen. There was an aura of love in that kitchen that seemed to speak of bottomless acceptance. I found myself moved to tears several times during the interview.
“Fortunately, I learned early on that I couldn’t fix everything in my children’s lives,” said Lisa.
Potentially, there was a lot to “fix” in being a white mother to her racially diverse clan. Now grown, the children are; Aaron, Filipino and Norwegian, Sarah, Scotch and Irish, Rachel, Ojibwe and Italian and Eve, African American and German.
She recalled being confronted by an African American instructor years ago during a parenting class about adopting and raising mixed race children.
Lisa recovered from her sense of feeling unjustly accused and resisted storming out of the class.
“I realized that I needed to hear what this woman had to tell us. She prepared us for not thinking we could fix everything with parental love alone, “ she recalled.
Not only did she learn that she wouldn’t be able to isolate her children from the hurt of racism, she learned to be open to those who could mentor her through the parenting process.
Enter Sandy White Hawk, a challenging mentor if there ever was one. Sandy recalls her Indian caregiver handing her, at 18 months, through the window of a pickup truck into the hands of white missionaries who had come to the Rosebud reservation in South Dakota to “help the Indians.” Sandy internalized her adoptive parents message that she was and ever would be a pagan, a member of an inferior race. She was also physically and sexually abused in the home. Seeking to soothe her wounded soul, she turned to drugs and alcohol. Nothing seemed to take away the hurt until she found recovery and ‘came home’ over 20 years ago to her people and culture. She recalls the sense of relief and healing upon hearing the American Indian drum for the first time.
“The drum goes to that place where there are no words. As adoptees when we first hear it, we realize it has been what we were longing for.”
Since, she has been compelled, almost obsessed in an effort to share this experience with other adoptees, knowing in her belly that a healing path lies therein. Working with a number of elders and spiritual leaders including Jerry Dearly, Lakota, she helped bring the Wanblenica or Orphan’s Song and ceremony that wipes away tears to Indian adoptees. It was during a Wanblenica that she came into the Kupcho’s lives.
The first Wanblenica offered by Sandy’s group was presented at an annual National Indian Child Welfare Association conference in Duluth. Rachel had recently been hired at NICWA and was helping to organize the conference. Typically, her parents were there as well, pitching in where they could, happy to be of service to their daughter. The theme of the conference was “Reclaiming the Stolen Ones.”
Lisa recalls Keith’s look of surprise over the theme’s name. “Stolen? Ooooh, a bit harsh.” he said.
Rather than feeling threatened, Lisa saw the conference as a learning opportunity. Soothing Keith, she reminded him of their motto: “Whatever is good for our kids, is good for our family.”
Lisa has come to believe that there is a core piece of something missing for adopted kids, a piece of abandonment for which they must seek healing in their own way. She has spoken often to her children about this need and assured them of her support if they choose to explore their biological background and culture more fully.
“Whatever I can do or bring into their lives that makes them more healthy and whole advances our relationship. When you’re a mother first, you do whatever you can to make your child feel well and whole and supported.”
She was excited and honored to participate in the Wanblenica . In the end “Rachel’s growth has been our growth,” she affirms.
Lisa and Keith stood firmly behind Rachel during the ceremony, their hands resting on her shoulders. Tears streamed uncontrollably down her face during the Wanblecheya.
“I felt so unbelievably loved. It was the most profound moments of my life.” Rachel recalls.
For Lisa, the ceremony represented a healthy sense of completion. “It was an embrace and acknowledgment of loss,” she said.
Although she has never felt lost or misplaced, Rachel felt the relief of being welcomed into the circle of her culture at last. Not only was the event a homecoming, according to Rachel, it was an acknowledgment from her parents that her quest for her heritage is important.
“Up until that point, it was the only thing they weren’t able to give me, but they were present when I received this gift,” she remembers.
Rachel is now convinced that without the unconditional love and support of her parents, she would not be strong enough to do the work that has now become her passion and her calling.
Working to support the Indian Child Welfare Act is now her life. She is a court advocate for ICWA and helps Sandy in her efforts to gain funding for a project to create a social work curriculum that includes knowledge about Indian families and culture. “Everything that has happened in my life has prepared me to do this work.”
Lisa sees Sandy as a wonderful mentor and role model for Rachel. “It has almost been a relief to have others in our lives who could give Rachel what she needs”, Lisa laughs, recalling some mother daughter challenges. In the end, for Lisa, she has gained a friend in Sandy.
The passion of these three women, from such different backgrounds, has intertwined to form a tapestry of family love and support. I am reminded of my earlier vision of the Great River and how it unites its many channels into one big river, much like these women or water caregivers have united to grow Rachel into an Anishinabikwe.
As the Adoptees Powwow comes to an end, the Sisseton Wahpeton Vietnam Veterans Color guards insist on having their photo taken with Rachel. Wearing full eagle feather headdresses and military fatigues, they surround her creating a vision of embrace, acceptance and support. She has, indeed, arrived home.
Note: The reporting and writing for this project were supported by a grant from the USC Annenberg’s Institute for Justice and Journalism.