To Dry the Eyes of Indian Adoptees

[imgbelt img=rachel-and-young-women530.jpg]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.

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[imgcontainer left] [img:girl-and-doll320.jpg] [source]Mary Annette Pember

A girl in a traditional jingle dress dances with a stuffed animal at a powwow of Native American adoptees, in Minneapolis.
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.

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