Poetry For April

April is poetry month. My friend, Ande Stanley (a late discovery adoptee) wrote a poem for her The Adoption Files WordPress blog that I think a lot of adoptees could relate to, and so I share.

My parents (both adoptees) wanted their ashes scattered on Elephant Butte Lake in New Mexico. We had to be careful because it is not recommended. Most likely against the law. The first time, my daughter and I went out with my dad to scatter my mom’s ashes. That was a wild and crazy ride for both of us in his boat with my dad !!

When my dad died only 4 months later, my aunt (my dad’s half sister by his second adoptive father), my middle sister and her daughter, as well as me and my daughter went to scatter his ashes also on the lake, as that was his wish, but we did not take my dad’s boat out that time. We just stood on a dock near their last residence. Some official came along because we didn’t have a permit to take our car into lake property (it is a state park). My sister was hiding the cremation box under her jacket. LOL We did get the deed done. My aunt took the photo below. Maybe I should not go into the story of how the crematorium stole my parents rings . . . always make certain you get them back is all I can say.

Feb 9 2016, Ash Day

Mirabai Starr in Wild Mercy

Mirabai Starr with daughter Jenny

I am in the midst of reading Mirabai Starr‘s book – Wild Mercy – and today learned she adopted her children. Hers is a multiracial family. She had made the decision in her youth due to a concern about overpopulation (a concern I shared at one point in my own life). The looming shadow of the climate crisis was another motivation.

Between them, Mirabai and her husband, Jeff, have four grown daughters and six grandchildren. Mirabai’s youngest daughter, Jenny, was killed in a car accident in 2001 at the age of fourteen. On that same day, Mirabai’s first book, a translation of Dark Night of the Soul, was released.

Mirabai writes – I am a mother who has lost her child, Jenny Starr. In the midst of terrible beautiful unbridled mothering I am suddenly childless. I cannot find my way through a world that does not have my girl at its center. I do not understand. I don’t get why you did not make it through the hurricane season of adolescence, why the vessel of our love, of our ferociously devoted love, did not carry you safely back to me.

Her book Caravan of No Despair is the story of her journey through the grief of this tragedy. She has written in an essay Why Mother’s Day Is Still Special To Me that she found her daughter on her thirtieth birthday. “It was early May and we drove to Albuquerque from our home in the mountains of northern New Mexico to meet Jenny at her foster home in the South Valley. I had been prepped for the encounter, and had cultivated a degree of reserve so that I would neither overwhelm the child nor give her false hope in case it was not a good fit and we wouldn’t be following through.”

She continues, “Most children in the adoption system have been abused, neglected, abandoned, and have serious trust issues. I envisioned Jenny as a wild bird landing for a moment in my hand. I must not scare her off. We pulled up to the dilapidated adobe and parked at the curb—my soon-to-be ex-husband, my older daughter, Daniela, whom we had adopted two years earlier on her eleventh birthday, and me. I stepped out of the car and there she was, a toddler on a tricycle, peddling toward us with a shy smile. Look, Mommy, her face said to me, I can ride my bike.

A week later, on Mother’s Day, we brought her home. Jenny’s social worker met us halfway, at the Dunkin’ Donuts in Santa Fe. Jenny clutched the paper bag containing all of her possessions—a couple of pairs of pants that were too small and a flowered blouse that was too big (the new jacket conspicuously missing). She had a “memory book” put together by the staff at her foster home. It contained a picture of a little black baby cut from an ad in a magazine because Jenny did not have any real baby pictures and the Gerber child looked a little, but not very much, like her (and not a thing like me).

Jenny herself dubbed Mother’s Day as our “anniversary.” Every year on that day we celebrated with cake, mostly on our own, as the man who was supposed to be her father never was, and her sister became a teenage mother early on and left home.

The year I turned forty, Jenny turned fourteen. One night in a fit of teenage rebellion, Jenny took my car for a joy ride and never returned. She crashed on the downward slope of a steep mountain pass and died alone under a full moon. It never crossed my consciousness that I would outlive my child or that Mother’s Day would become an unbearable reminder that the daughter into whom I poured the full cup of my love would leave this world, and that I would shatter.

On a personal note – my then teenage daughter once went for a joyride in the middle of the night with a sleep-over friend and they wrecked her step-mother’s car. She called me wanting a plane ticket to Missouri. I knew that her dad and step-mother would look here first and that she needed to face the responsibility for what she had done. It took my parents intervention (who were still in the same city) to keep her from running away (which was my primary concern). I am so grateful upon reading this that she at least survived. It could have turned out tragically.

Mormon Adoption of Native American Children

The Mormons – yet again. Taking other people’s children to advance their religious cause. A white middle-aged man, Michael Kay Bennion writes in his lengthy dissertation titled Captivity, Adoption, Marriage and Identity: Native American Children in Mormon Homes, 1847-1900 – “I remembered that my third great-grandfather once traded
a horse for ‘an Indian boy, two or three years old.’ Or so his journal said.”

Some Mormons saw the purchase of a Native American as the adoption of a child when they were unable to have children of their own. Jacob Hamblin (a ranch by that name, Hamblin, figured prominently in the Mountain Meadows
Massacre) traded the Utes “a gun, a blanket and some ammunition” for a six-year-old boy “stolen from a small tribe.” Many Mormons view Jacob Hamblin as a type of nineteenth-century social worker, others would assert he was a slave trader. The fact is that Jacob acquired many children and parceled them out, sometimes in exchange for trade goods, making “slave trader” a distinct possibility. Jacob Hamblin, according to his own words, believed that his work saved lives and indicated he felt grief over separating the families.

From north to south, Native American children were entering Utah Mormon families in increasing numbers in the 1850s, even as the New Mexican slave trade slowly decreased. Not all Native American children traded to Mormons easily or happily identified with their captors. There are many stories of runaways and those persons who never adjusted to the Mormon culture. The Utah slave trade caused grief and pain for the children’s parents and also for children who were stolen and placed in Mormon families. Imagine these trembling, frightened captives thrust into a culture very different from their own, who then had new identities imposed upon them.

Native Americans captured, traded, given away, or sold into Mormon homes experienced a difficult cultural shift from growing up Native American to growing up Mormon. Many Latter-day Saint families acquired these children out of a sense of religious duty. They then embraced the difficult task of fostering these children into a new culture, often with mixed results. Most of these adoptive parents felt little or no need to preserve Indigenous customs within the lives of these children. While retaining the external physical characteristics that Mormons and other Euro-Americans used to identify them as “Indians,” they were taught to respond socially as members of Mormon society.

These children had the difficult task of reconciling their past and the newly imposed white identity and their success often was a reflection of the kindness or malicious actions of those white persons involved with them.  This resulted in various behaviors from within uniquely constructed internal identities. Some of these children learned to live in the seams between cultures, some accepted the new culture, and others resisted it.

During the American Civil War, several children were adopted by Mormon families after surviving two horrific massacres which were perpetrated by a Californian Union volunteer regiment of the US Army. At the Bear River Massacre and at a subsequent battle, these volunteers killed hundreds of Shoshones and Bannocks. There were 5 surviving children, left homeless and wounded by the attacks, that required medical attention, food and clothing.  The Mormons in southern Idaho and northern Utah provided these. One of those five died but the remaining four were adopted into Mormon homes.

Against a backdrop of conflict and tribal upheaval, Native American children in Mormon homes would sometimes reach maturity and assert their own identities. Mormon foster parents or indenture holders (a common practice in those times)  attempted to teach the Native American children the white way of life, even as these Mormons tried to reconcile their own deeply held cultural prejudices with a sense of mission – against the actual reality.

An example of this trade in children is illustrated in a story of a Native American who is said to have told a white
Mormon man – “I’ve got too many children, and my wife’s got another new baby and I’ve got to get rid of this one.” To which the Mormon replied, “[G]ive it to me. I’ll take it and feed it and save it. But I don’t want you to take it back, when it gets a little bigger, when it could kind of help the family…We don’t want to raise a baby and then [you] come and take it away [from] us again. So…I’ll pay ya for the little girl.” Turns out the little girl’s mother was not pleased and made a fuss. The Mormon insisted to the Native American man, “Now make up your mind right now and never change it, because you can’t have this baby back if you take the horse.”

This negotiation sounds more like purchasing a pet than adopting a child. The mother of the child, who was understandably distraught over the loss of her child is described as “squawking” like an animal, rather than weeping for
her child. The source of this narrative trivialized a highly emotional parting of mother and child.  Such was the perspectives of white people during that time.

Marginal food and clothing resources among Native American family clusters in the 1850s Great Basin region worsened as Mormon settlers appropriated the best fields and river bottoms for their own use. As previous narratives indicate, sometimes the Native American families simply gave away a child, when resources became so scarce that the child represented more of a burden than an asset.  I call it desperation for their children to survive.

As Mormons encountered Native Americans, they found that the ideal in their scriptures of the chosen Lamanites of the House of Israel rising up to claim their blessings (an interesting tenet of the Mormon religion that believed the dark skinned “fallen” could be made white again) often clashed with the predominant Euro-American image that Indians were perpetually dirty and permanently degraded. In coping with this paradox, Mormons tried to find ways to bring the Native American image up to the standards of their own ideal.

Washing and clothing Native American children is reported in many literary and direct experience accounts of bringing Native American children into Mormon homes. This process of cleaning up natives was not unique to the Mormons. It is frequently found in stories of captivity and adoption narratives, beyond those of the Mormons, and cannot be classified as a unilateral phenomenon, limited to Euro-American captors and Native American captives.

One can feel the deadening sense of deprivation and the unwelcome new smells, textures and tastes that lye soap, water and cotton or linsey woolsey presented to a Native American child leaving their culture unwillingly and entering another. The abrupt changes in sight, sound, odor and taste that Native American children experienced upon entering a totally alien environment would have been severely disruptive.  Their appearance, demeanor, and smell were often disagreeable to Mormon women. It is true that both Native Americans and Whites altered the appearance of their captives. One reason was to bring their outward appearance into culturally accepted norms.  The other reason was an attempt to remove the “other” in them while inducting them into the captor’s culture. Additionally, washing and clothing are known to have had religious overtones in Mormon culture and so, Mormon pioneer women were expressing this in scrubbing newly adopted Native American family members.

It was not only the physical dirt, but spiritual filth that needed to be exorcised, as demanded by their salvational way of thinking. Mormon mothers and fathers understood physical cleanliness as a prerequisite for repentance. In this way, they believed they could participate in redeeming the Lamanites. Some Mormon mothers may have hoped that their Lamanite child would put off their old culture, so that their labor would not be in vain as they presented a clean child, dressed in Euro-American style, to the other family members. With some others, it may have simply been that they could not tolerate unfamiliar odors wafting from the Native American.

The imposition of external markers of the white culture divided the adopted Native American children from their birth culture and delineated the expectations of the Mormon family for their future behavior. Some Native American children seized upon the cues in their new environment and built upon them, some would forever resist assimilation and others would use ethnic behaviors from each culture as the situation demanded. But each child forced into a new way of living had to construct an identity they could survive with.

Regarding all of these children, given the times and environmental conditions caused by white settlement, any one of them might have starved or have been traded to the Utes and taken to New Mexico given the thriving slave trade of that time. However, such a child might have lived a long life, had a family of his own even though, as many did, he had to struggle through all that Native Americans dealt with in the late nineteenth century. That child remaining in his culture realistically would have loved his tribal life and experienced a sense of wholeness, that being separated from it was never going to embody.

Thank you for bearing with me leaning into my history loving heart. Learning that the Mormons had taken 40,000 Native American children out of their culture, adopting them into their religious and family lives, caused me to visit this related story. Back to more usual topics, I’m certain, tomorrow.

Glad I Was

The author with her parents (both adoptees) apologies for the poor quality

My mom wrote about being adopted to me in an email “glad I was” but it was half-hearted because she died never knowing why. The state of Tennessee had rejected her request for her own adoption file while breaking her heart by telling her that her original mother had died some years earlier. In beginning her quest, my mom had said, “As a mother, I would want to know what became of my child.”

It is exceedingly sad that she didn’t receive her file. Her mom’s photo, holding my mom for the last time, was in it. Had she read through it, she would have known how much her mother loved her, wanted her and fought to keep her. My mom had defined her adoption as “inappropriate” in her letters to Tennessee. She was stating her belief delicately because she couldn’t reconcile having been born in Virginia and yet adopted in Tennessee while still an infant. And my mom knew all about the scandals of Georgia Tann, who’s agency my mom was adopted from.

The truth is that in the kindest of terms, my grandmother was coerced and exploited to take her baby from her for a woman who was willing to travel from Nogales Arizona to Memphis Tennessee to fetch my mom and then return to Arizona by train with an upset baby.

That remark from my mom came as I informed her I had gotten my DNA tested at Ancestry because both of my parents were adopted I didn’t know anything about my genetic origins. I had previously participated in National Geographic’s Genographic study of my maternal line (it was a gift from my brother-in-law for my birthday). The results were vague and minimal, only telling me my maternal line came out of Africa, validating my assertion that I was an Albino African – no one, including myself, could prove otherwise. The truth is I am very European, mostly Danish, then Scottish with a healthy dose of English and Irish to top it off. My mom had a smidgeon of Mali, I have a smidgeon of Ashkenazi Jew and Neanderthal.

My mom surprised me by telling me that she had also done an Ancestry DNA and had attempted family trees but they were based on the adoptive families for my dad and her self. She admitted that she lost motivation – “it just wasn’t real to me” she said – and I understood. Someday I will create REAL family trees for both of my parents. It just hasn’t been a priority nor have I had the time so far.

I recently went through a long exchange with some woman I didn’t know who had included my parents in her own family tree. She was really dense and it was difficult to get through to her that the people she was saying my parents were related to – they weren’t related to. Finally, she got it and said she would correct it when she had time. I never went back to look.

Someone recently described being adopted as being forced to play a silly game of pretend. I understand. My parents had to pretend to be the natural born child of the people who adopted them. My dad’s perspective matched that. He believed once you are adopted the people who gave you birth are insignificant. Only the people who raised you mattered. The pity is – unknown to him – at the time of his death a half-sister was living 90 miles away from him in the same state of New Mexico and could have shared with him so much about his mother and the family that came of her.

Robbed Of Heritage

The symbolism in this painting calls to something very deep within me.  It is a painting by Barbara Taffet. In 1973, she reinvented herself as Maria Alquilar, a Latina artist whose fictive back story included a Sephardic Jewish father from Argentina. Drawing on her deep knowledge of world myths and spiritual traditions, filtered through her own personal mythology, she began creating idiosyncratic works inspired by the work of the California Sacramento-Davis area narrative expressionist, outsider and funk artists she admired and collected.

Adoption robs us of our actual cultural heritage.  All my life until very recently, I believed my dad was half-Mexican and my mom possibly half-African American.  They were both adoptees and for what little we knew about our familial roots, we could claim any story we wanted and not even our own selves knew whether it was true or not.

So along came inexpensive DNA testing.  Both my mom and I had ours done at Ancestry.  Later on, I had mine also tested at 23 and Me.  My mom has some Mali in her and so, I suspect slavery had something to do with that.  My dad’s dark complexion actually came by way of his Danish immigrant father.  I have learned there is some Ashkenazi Jew in me and suspect that comes via a family that lived for generations on Long Island New York.

Why does this painting call so deeply to my soul – there is that Jewish symbol and there is the Southwestern symbols as well.  There is a predator protecting it’s prey – my maternal grandmother was preyed upon by Georgia Tann, the famous baby thief of Memphis Tennessee.  And it is always about the bunnies in my household.  The angelic image at the top is more like a Jackrabbit which fits nicely with my New Mexican birth.

In many transracial adoptions, the very young child is not only cut off from their cultural heritage but loses contact with their native language.  It may be difficult to understand how disorienting that is but I get it.  It’s time to change the rules of the adoption game.

The Indian Child Welfare Act

A lawsuit filed by a non-Native American couple in Texas claims the ICWA discriminates on the basis of race and infringes on states’ rights. It will be heard by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 5th Circuit.

The federal law, passed in 1978, mandates that states prioritize placing Native American children up for adoption with members of their family, their tribe or other Native American families — a remedy to policies that had previously empowered the government to take native children from their parents without cause and eradicate their tribal identity.

The Texas couple, Chad and Jennifer Brackeen, sued the U.S. Interior Department in 2017 after their petition to adopt a Native American toddler they had fostered for more than a year was challenged in state court. Texas Child Protective Services had removed the boy, called A.L.M. by the court, from the custody of his paternal grandparents and placed him in foster care with the Brackeens.

He lived with them for 16 months, according to court documents. They sought to adopt him with the support of his biological parents — members of the Navajo Nation and Cherokee Nation — and his paternal grandparents. The ICWA requires, however, that a child’s tribe be notified before an adoption placement is approved.

The Navajo Nation located a nonrelative Native American family in New Mexico willing to adopt the boy, though that placement ultimately fell through. The Brackeens eventually successfully petitioned to adopt A.L.M. and are trying to adopt his younger sister.

In October 2018, a federal judge in the Northern District of Texas agreed that much of the ICWA is unconstitutional. Defendants in the case, include the federal government and the Morongo, Quinault, Oneida and Cherokee tribes. They have appealed that decision.

The Circuit Judge, James L. Dennis, wrote that the ICWA aimed to classify children not by race, but by politics. The definition of “Indian child” under the law is broad, he wrote, and extends “to children without Indian blood, such as the descendants of former slaves of tribes who became members after they were freed, or the descendants of adopted white persons.”

In a statement affirming ICWA intentions, tribal leaders wrote –

“We never want to go back to the days when Indian children were ripped away from their families and stripped of their heritage.”

The ICWA was passed in 1978 in response to what was viewed as a family separation crisis for American Indian and Alaska Native communities. Studies showed that 25 to 35 percent of all native children were being removed, and of them, 85 percent were placed in homes outside their families or tribes. This happened even when suitable family members were willing to foster or adopt.  Those trends followed decades of mistreatment of Native American communities by the U.S. government.