Carrie Coon’s Adopted Sister

This quote caused me to go looking for more information because we watched Oliver Stone’s Salvador last night. Here is what I found thanks to LINK> Pound Pup Legacy – exposing the dark side of adoption.

Carrie Coon had just turned 3 in 1983 when adopted sister Morena, 4, joined her family. From the beginning, the two girls were very close — and together they made a charming pair, with Morena the dark one and Carrie the fair one, both pretty girls with long, straight hair. Morena was one of several hundred young children from El Salvador who were adopted by Northeast Ohio families in the early 1980s. That was when the Salvadoran civil war was at its height.

In the summer of 2000, Morena’s younger sister, Carrie (who was then 19), traveled to El Salvador, hoping to make contact with the biological family that her older sister could not remember. The war in El Salvador ended in 1992. And within a few years, the biological parents of some of the children who had been stolen for adoption during the conflict came looking in the United States. By that time, most of the adopted children were in their teens. Carrie was 16 then. Morena was 18.

75,000 people were killed in the El Salvador civil war. Morena was not one of the children who learned they had been stolen. John and Paula Coon, who also were raising three sons, had orphanage paperwork that included the names of Morena’s biological mother — Rosa Sanchez — and her father — Flores. By that time, they also had located Morena’s older sister, who was adopted and living in Sacramento, California. Both girls are lucky to have survived. Morena says today she would love her family members to know she is OK and to know they are OK, if they also survived. “It would be kind of hard to put them in my heart now,” she said. “I mean, they always have a place there — the way I think they are. But to find them, it’s like meeting a perfect stranger.”

Morena in 2000 was 21 years old and in the Navy. She was serving on the aircraft carrier John Fitzgerald Kennedy stationed at Mayfield, FL. She understood her sister Carrie’s interest in finding Morena’s Salvadoran relatives. It was for that reason, that Carrie joined a group of 55 Ohio students — including many Salvadoran adoptees — who traveled to Santa Tecla, El Salvador, as part of a medical mission to an orphanage there. The orphanage was located in Ahuachapan, near where Morena’s birth family came from. The group was led by Dr Harvey Tucker of Children’s Hospital Medical Center of Akron. Morena said that Carrie, “. . . just wants to know for herself what kind of people they were. I just know that’s the way she is. We are very close.”

Carrie remembers how frightened Morena was when the two girls were preschoolers together. “She was really possessive of her toys. I remember I wanted to hug her, and she would run away because she was afraid of me.” Over the years, Carrie became more and more interested in Morena’s Salvadoran background. She recalls their parents taking them to see the 1989 movie Romero about the Salvadoran archbishop who was assassinated during the war in 1981. The film included some graphic scenes of the war and its violence. “My parents never really held us back from those things,” Carrie recalled. “. . . When I saw the movie, and just the violence there, I was fascinated by that society and how those people have so little, compared to what we have here.”

Carrie and Morena’s parents told their children that Morena had been rescued from a dangerous place, where she had been so poor she had had to sell candy on the streets. “It was pretty frightening,” Paula Coon recalled. “We went (to adopt Morena) on the weekend after the U.S. Embassy was bombed — in July of 1983.”

In elementary school, Morena didn’t always blend in. “People would say, ‘Is she your real sister?’ because we don’t look alike,” Carrie said, describing her sister’s dark-skin, her dark hair — the features she got from her Mayan ancestors. “A lot of people didn’t know what adoption is, and where El Salvador is.”

The teen-age years were hard for Morena. She was a senior in high school when publicity surfaced about the Salvadoran children being stolen for adoption here. It caused a crisis with her adopted family. “Morena has never said, ‘You’re not my real mom, you’re not my real dad,’ ” Paula Coon said, “But she was becoming disruptive in the family.. . . Morena had more baggage than the average teen-ager.” Though it was hard for her to accept her older daughter’s distancing behavior at the time, Paula Coon said, “Carrie always knew and understood what Mo was going through. Carrie said to me, ‘I have talked to other kids like Morena — and they’re having the same problems.’ “

Morena was able to return to being on good terms with her family. During her time in the navy, she called home from the base “almost every day.” And, although Morena does not retain any of the Spanish language that she spoke as a toddler, her sister Carrie became a Spanish-language major in college. Carrie was excited about her trip to El Salvador because it was a place she had always imagined, ever since she and Morena became sisters. “We take everything for granted here,” Carrie said. “I have always wanted people to understand about her (Morena), where she came from. I thought this would help me understand her a little bit better.”

Want to add this from an adoptee – I carry the life long burden of being “ya know she’s the adopted one”. I let it define me for so many years. I was and am just a kid, grandkid, a person, who happens to have been adopted. Took me a very long time to figure that out. It stymied a lot of my younger years.

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.