By Susan Devan Harness
The anti-ICWA crowd says it is. But remember, race and historical brutality are heavily intertwined.
The U.S. government has a long history of violence against American Indian people, in its declaration of wars, removing American Indian people from homelands to free up lands for white settlers, requiring children to be culturally ‘re-educated’ at boarding schools, and bribing young men and women to leave their Native families and communities for big cities, promising jobs, which, in reality, didn’t exist. Such historical trauma produces social ills, including alcoholism, homelessness, violence, and early deaths. But not for everyone. There are plenty of strong men and women who live in American Indian communities, but those voices are erased by anti-ICWA narratives.
Despite the physical and cultural genocides, we would not die; we kept coming back together like beads of mercury. To prevent cultural cohesiveness, policy makers implemented a program known as the Indian Adoption Project, which ran from 1958-1967. Its stated purpose was to allow children an escape from the ‘cesspools’ of the reservation to be raised in middle-class and upper middle-class families, where we would learn morality and values, provided resources that would afford us good educations, which would then give us access to the American Dream. Deemed an early success, children were flying off reservations. William Byler estimated that by 1972 between 25% and 35% of American Indian children had been removed to be raised in white America. Which comes to the policy’s hidden agenda: the removal of a culture’s future. American Indian transracial adoption was a new form of cultural genocide.
My work as a cultural anthropologist revealed that as children, we became lightning rods for beliefs and attitudes rooted deep in a history of extermination. We were not safe within our homes; nearly half of us experienced emotional, verbal, physical, and/or sexual abuse at a much higher prevalence than that of our white counterparts. We were objectified in the communities where we were raised. Too many of us heard American Indians described as drunks, government-subsidized, promiscuous, thieving, and dirty; the few positive descriptions we heard were tired stereotypes: proud, quiet, and artistic. We rarely heard “intelligent.” But when we tried to return home, we were outsiders to our own cultures, forgotten by our communities. We were labeled as “apples” — red on the outside, white on the inside. As one person put it, “I always felt like I was on the outside looking in.”
We didn’t just feel ‘othered’ in our families and communities; the dominant culture was quick to show us alienating representations in literature, art, and the media. One man talked about the meaning of the Thanksgiving story for him: “All Indians were a piece of pop culture where I grew up, a piece of artwork on the wall. Nothing about where food came from. Thanksgiving was [really] about white people killing the Pequots but…Indians were a nice little backdrop.”
Commodification of American Indian art tells at least two stories of American Indians: as collectibles and as possessing a raw sexuality. Regarding the first, one woman told me, “I feel like a trophy…. my parents never let me know I was adopted, let alone Native American [until my 30s]. I grew up with tons of Native American art…it was almost like I was a hidden treasure…and for a while I wondered if I was part of that collection.” The art depicting the raw sexuality of American Indian females is token of our social placement: the Native woman, sleeve slid off one shoulder, staring at the artist with smoldering eyes while a wolf bays at a full moon in the background.
As adoptees, we see representations of who we are and what we have been ‘saved’ from everywhere we turn. On road trips we pass road signs and battlegrounds that commemorate the cavalry and visit museums that glorify their wars of extermination. And it creates such anger and hatred, much of it turned inward. It’s inhumane to place an American Indian child in the midst of white America whose cultural derision is overwhelmingly evident.
We are the reason ICWA was enacted in 1978. So yes, you may think it’s about race, but we were never the ones who decided we were different. That label comes from white America.
Susan Devan Harness is a member of the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes and author of Mixing Cultural Identities Through Transracial Adoption, and multiple award-winning Bitterroot: A Salish Memoir of Transracial Adoption, as well as an American Indian transracial adoptee.