Susan Devan Harness
In September of 2012, a year after my book Mixing Cultural Identities Through Transracial Adoption: Outcomes of the Indian Adoption Project (1958-1967) was published by Edwin Mellen Press, I was contacted by Monte Whaley from the Denver Post, requesting an interview.
Reader’s reactions to that profile illustrated their limited knowledge of the brutal assimilation policies implemented by the U.S. Government on American Indians over the last nearly 250 years. Many people knew bits and pieces; they talked about the Indian Wars and their associated forts, and referenced us as “hostiles” when discussing the Oregon Trail, the California Trail, or the Mormon Trail. But their comments illustrated their lack of understanding about why we might have become hostile in the first place
My initial research of the outcomes of the Indian Adoption Project (1958-1967) examined its debilitating effects on adult American Indians who’d been placed into white families, as children. I felt it important to put a face to this historical policy of child placement, and wrote Bitterroot: A Salish Memoir of Transracial Adoption, recently released by University of Nebraska Press.
As I considered events from a historical perspective and gathered memories and insights from members of my biological family, it became evident that children were not the only people negatively affected by this policy; tribal families and communities, important conveyors of culture, were negatively affected as well.
I reflected on the life I was given, and the life from which I’d been removed. I researched my birth family’s historical memories and experiences. Through these activities I gained a focused understanding of political strategy that was used to dismember American Indian culture, policies that included Indian Removal (1830), Indian Education (1600s to late 1970s), Termination and Relocation (1950s) and the Indian Adoption Project (1958-1967).
The latter in particular was tragically the most successful of all the assimilation programs and policies to date, as it removed children from the families and traditions through closed adoption, a placement that was meant to be permanent. That piece of legal footwork made it impossible for us to find our way back home. We were stuck in a place of in-between: too white to be Indian, too Indian to be white. In this no-man’s land of belonging we were dogged by depression, mental illness and suicide attempts and successes, much of it caused by the fact that we weren’t allowed to claim any identity, and if we tried, we remained unclaimed and unacknowledged.
This constant barrage of policies knocked our feet out from under us time and time again, with no opportunity to get up and regroup. The social chaos now seeps red onto soil that was once our homeland. Predators who occupy courtrooms with their high-priced, three-piece suits watch and wait for us to bleed out.
They are still trying to dismantle American Indian culture and traditions through the removal of our children. They have cunning arguments which, with their large and boisterous words and white privilege, carefully shadow the fact that they just aren’t seeking our children, but ethnic annihilation. Through court cases, such as Baby Veronica , A.D. vs Washburn, and Texas v. Zinke powerful groups are working at a frantic pace to undo the Indian Child Welfare Act of 1978, which was put into place to stop the wholesale removal of children who were flying off the reservation by the early 1970s.
Recently, I spoke to a friend who follows these legal battles. “Why do they want to undo ICWA,” I asked, perplexed because I don’t believe any of those litigators care one whit about what happens to American Indian children or American Indian families. My friend replied, “If they can get rid of ICWA, they can begin to work to disassemble all the laws and protections that have been put into place by American Indian treaty rights.”
The bottom line, economic interests want the land, and the resources beneath that land. They always have. They are hiring legal experts to take away our kids to achieve that goal, like they always have.
I’m fighting to keep that from happening.
And that fight starts with keeping our children.
Susan Harness, a native adoptee, is the author of Bitterroot.