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Children's Voice Article, March 2002

Coming Home: The Lingering Effects of the Indian Adoption Project

She began sobbing when she came across the words, 'child of the Indian race.' When her counselors asked her why she was crying, she told them, 'It says I'm Indian. I don't know what that means.'

by Kristen Kreisher

Coming Home

"When we talk about our stories, there is never one beginning," says Sandy White Hawk of Madison, Wisconsin.

Her first beginning was being born a Sicangu Lakota on the Rosebud reservation in South Dakota. The next one was at age 18 months, when she was lifted into a red pickup truck and placed between the people who would become her adoptive parents. Another beginning came more than 30 years later when White Hawk, sober for several years and recently divorced, returned to Rosebud to find the family and the people who were taken from her, and from whom she had been taken.

A white couple who lived in nearby Winner, South Dakota, adopted White Hawk. Her birthmother, Nina Lulu White Hawk, raised only one of her nine babies. The rest were taken and adopted or placed in foster homes. "From what I gather," White Hawk says, "she had a hard life."

What happened to White Hawk was not unusual. From its earliest history, U.S. government policy has sought to assimilate and Christianize Indians, starting with their infants and youth. Beginning in the late 1800s, the federal government and the Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA) set up and ran boarding schools to assimilate Native American youth through education. Thousands of Indian children were sent, or forcibly taken, to these schools, where they learned English and Christianity and were allowed little or no contact with their families.

"They never learned how to parent, or carry on their culture, traditions, and values," says Kathy Deserly, Community Development Specialist for the National Indian Child Welfare Association (NICWA). "Children were raised by dormitory matrons."

The Indian Adoption Project

The policy of assimilation took a more aggressive tone in the 1950s, '60s, and '70s, when thousands of Indian children were removed from their families by missionaries or social workers and placed in foster homes or with non-Indian adoptive parents. Tribal officials, family members, and the Indian community were usually excluded from these placement decisions.

In 1958, CWLA collaborated with BIA under a federal contract to establish the Indian Adoption Project. During the next nine years, CWLA channeled federal funds to its private member agencies, primarily in New England, and later public child welfare agencies, to place 395 Indian children with white adoptive families. The project was driven by a study estimating 1,000 children were in foster care or informal kinship care on reservations racked by poverty and destitution.

According to David Fanshel in Far from the Reservation, a five-year study of 97 families who adopted Indian children through the project, the children "came from family situations where the oppression of poverty and the meanness of daily living-so familiar to American Indians-had exacted its toll. These were children identified by social workers on the reservations as being at great risk of growing up without any semblance of family life."*

"Unfortunately, their answer to extreme poverty was to tear our families apart," White Hawk says. "I imagine they did save the lives of some kids. Maybe some of those kids would have died because of sickness. But we lost something that was at the very center of our culture-family and extended family." A 1969 study by the Association on American Indian Affairs showed that roughly 25% to 35% of Indian children had been separated from their families. According to the First Nations Orphan Association, between 1941 and 1978, 68% of all Indian children were removed from their homes and placed in orphanages or white foster homes, or adopted into white families.

Although CWLA was only involved in a fraction of these adoptions, its participation gave credence to the practice. In his study, which was published by CWLA in 1972, Fanshel reported the adopted children he studied were doing well after five years, from a physical and developmental standpoint, but acknowledged they were still young. "It is to be expected that as our Indian adoptees get older, the prevalence of problems will increase."

Problems proliferated in White Hawk's home. Her adoptive mother couldn't have children, but White Hawk says the woman thought it was her calling to take in and rescue children. "She reminded me all the time that she had saved me." After White Hawk's adoptive father died when she was 6, the family struggled to make ends meet. White Hawk says she was sexually and verbally abused by her increasingly unstable mother.

"I was told that what I came from was horrible, savage, pagan, and that I was so lucky to be taken away from all of that," White Hawk recounts. "When I became a teenager and went through normal teenage difficulties, my mother told me, 'Don't grow up to be a good for nothing Indian.'" To dull the pain, she began drinking at 14.

White Hawk believes that even in a stable, loving home, she would have grown up with the same feelings of ambiguity about where she came from. She says she felt isolated, fearful, and different as a child. "If you grow up within your culture, you look like your surroundings." But she had little to help her understand who she was and where she fit.

Fanshel's study concluded, "It seems clear that the fate of most Indian children is tied to the struggle of Indian people in the United States for survival and social justice. Their ultimate salvation rests upon the success of that struggle." Whether the adoption of Indian children into non-Indian homes is acceptable, he said, is for "the Indian people to decide."

NICWA Executive Director and founder Terry Cross says, "The Indian people decided long ago that the practice was not acceptable. It was a form of cultural genocide."

Responsibility and Regret

In April 2001, CWLA President and CEO Shay Bilchik spoke to an audience of 700 child welfare professionals from tribal and government organizations at NICWA's annual conference in Anchorage, Alaska. During his keynote address, Bilchik acknowledged and offered "sincere and deep regret" for CWLA's role in the Indian Adoption Project.

"No matter how well intentioned and how squarely in the mainstream this was at the time, it was wrong, it was hurtful, and it reflected a kind of bias that surfaces feelings of shame," Bilchik said. He also apologized for the League's failure to support the passage of the 1978 Indian Child Welfare Act and for not providing enough leadership and support to Indian child welfare concerns and efforts.

In recent years, CWLA has made efforts to improve its record by forming an internal Task Force on Indian Child Welfare, becoming more involved with NICWA, and committing to be better listeners. In May 2001, CWLA's Board of Directors passed a resolution acknowledging the League's role in the adoption of hundreds of Indian children and expressing "deep regret for its participation in any activities that were intended to break up Indian families, promote assimilation, and/or disregard Indian tribal governments." The resolution also commits to a new era of respect and partnership, support for the Indian Child Welfare Act, and collaboration with NICWA.

NICWA representatives traveled to Washington, DC, last September to present information on Indian child welfare to CWLA staff. In October, Bilchik attended a special ceremony honoring adoptees at the Keshena Powwow at the Menominee Reservation in Green Bay, Wisconsin.

An Adoptee's Return Home

White Hawk left her adoptive home at 18, attended college, got married, joined the Navy, and had two children. But when she divorced, White Hawk, who carried her adoptive parent's surname Keierleber and then the married name Reynolds, decided to take what would have been her maiden name, White Hawk. "Growing up I never felt comfortable saying Keierleber. I am not a Keierleber and I'm not a Reynolds. It was important that I carried a name that was mine."

Finding a name that fit her identity, however, was the easy part. After her divorce, White Hawk joined an incest survivors therapy group. For one session, she was asked to bring in something of emotional significance to share with the group. Unprepared before the session, she grabbed her adoption papers from a box of documents given to her by her adoptive mother. When her counselors asked her to read them, she began sobbing when she came across the words, "child of the Indian race." When they asked her why she was crying, she told them, "It says I'm Indian. I don't know what that means." That moment inspired her to find out.

In 1988, White Hawk traveled back to Rosebud for the first time in more than 30 years. On that first visit, she met several aunts and uncles. Her mother, who was one of 20 children, had passed away several years before. The next year, White Hawk returned, stayed with an aunt, and reconnected with some of her siblings.

"When I went home for the first time and saw the poverty, I also saw strength and a tenacity to hang on that made me proud. I saw pain, but I saw strength in that pain," she says. White Hawk has become deeply involved in the Indian community in Madison and says it has helped alleviate many of her feelings of isolation. "I know that I'm not alone in a way that I've never know before. I have a confidence I didn't have before. I have a pride in my ancestors, and it gives me strength."

Another Beginning

By the late 1970s, Native American activists helped the U.S. government recognize that changes were desperately needed. In 1978, the Indian Child Welfare Act (PL 95-608) became law, seeking to prevent the unwarranted removal of Indian children; ensure that, when they must be removed, they are placed in homes that reflect their culture; and preserve tribes. Although it is unevenly followed and enforced, it has solidified the power Indian families and tribes have over the placement of their children.

"By and large, it has helped a great deal," says Cross, who believes most states, especially those with large Native American populations, are making good-faith efforts to follow its mandates. Native Americans comprise only 1% of the U.S. population, but according to Native American Kids 2000: Indian Child Well-Being Indicators, published by Casey Family Programs and NICWA, the population of Indian children and their families is growing. They have survived centuries of efforts designed to erase their existence. The report says, "The forces of racism have impacted American Indian tribes, extended families, clans, and children for hundreds of years and are still affecting all Native children and youth."  It is still affecting hundreds of adult adoptees as well.

When White Hawk returned to Rosebud, she realized there wasn't a family on the reservation unaffected by adoption or foster care. "Mothers and fathers, grandmothers and grandfathers still grieve us," she says of the hundreds of children taken away. She was lucky enough to know the name of her mother and the reservation she came from, but most people affected by adoption are not as lucky. White Hawk says many adult adoptees still struggle with their sense of identity and belonging and suffer from high rates of depression, substance abuse, and suicide.

After attending several powwows and ceremonies, White Hawk came up with the idea for an honor song for adoptees. She shared her idea with Chris Leith, a Prairie Island Dakota Elder and Pipe Carrier for NICWA. Leith approached Jerry Dearly, a teacher of secondary cultural studies in the Indian Education Program for the St. Paul School District in Minnesota, to write a song for those who were adopted and those family members still grieving lost loved ones.

The song was sung for the first time during a healing ceremony at World Peace and Prayer Day, June 21, 2000, in the Black Hills of South Dakota. White Hawk and others spread the news about the event by word of mouth and a few flyers handed at out a NICWA event. "I was so humbled by the amount of people who came," White Hawk says. "When it was sung, people came out and started telling me their stories."

These experiences led to a desire for an organization that would meet the needs of Indian adoptees, and later to the creation of the First Nations Orphan Association. The association seeks to help individuals apply for tribal enrollment, search for relatives, and find postreunion support. It is still a fledgling effort, hindered by a lack of funds and White Hawk's struggle with chronic fatigue syndrome.

The association's motto, Wicoicage Ake Un-Ku-Pi, means "Generation after generation, we are coming home." White Hawk says many Indians still pray for their grief and pray for those who are lost. She hopes the organization can help more adoptees find their way back.

Kristen Kreisher is Managing Editor of Children's Voice.

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