Forcibly adopted American Indians torn between cultures
By Monte Whaley
Even in third grade, Susan Devan Harness knew she didn't belong in the white world. She already was being called "squaw girl" by classmates. Harness drew suspicious stares and was followed by employees every time she entered a store in the Montana town where she was raised. But it wasn't until she was 14 that she realized how estranged she was from the dominant culture she had been pushed into. Harness was among the 395 or so American Indian children forcibly adopted into white families as part of a national social experiment conducted from 1958 through 1967.
Harness, now a Colorado State University cultural anthropologist, has written a book about the experiences of those swept up in the Indian Adoption Project.
She found that like her, many of the adopted children were ostracized and belittled in both white and American Indian communities.
Harness, now 50, recalls being a teenager sitting on her front porch, listening to radio reports of the rising clamor caused by the American Indian Movement in the early 1970s. "I heard my dad say, 'What are those drunken war whoops up to now?' " Harness said.
"I thought to myself, 'If my dad was saying this to my face, what are other people saying about me?' "
Inspiration for change
Her book — "Mixing Cultural Identities Through Transracial Adoption" — describes how the project started as a handshake agreement between the Bureau of Indian Affairs and the Child Welfare League.
The idea was to rescue American Indian children from poverty and challenging social conditions and give them access to the resources of the white middle class.
But in reality, activists say, it was another effort by the white U.S. government to eradicate the American Indian population.
"So many things happened to the Indian people under so many federal policies," said Evelyn Stevenson, a longtime lawyer for the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes. "First there was annihilation and extermination, and then a period of assimilation and forced adoption, and then the idea of getting rid of reservations. It's made us all a little wacky."
Stevenson's Salish mother was taken from her family and forced to attend boarding school. After Stevenson earned her law degree, she helped pen the 1978 Indian Child Welfare Act in an effort to preserve what was left of American Indian families.
The law gives tribal governments a stronger voice in American Indian child-custody proceedings, including adoptions. The act blocks state courts from having any jurisdiction over the adoption or custody of Indian children residing within their own reservations.
Good intentions gone bad
Stevenson and others say the Indian Adoption Project may have been well-intentioned. But mostly it allowed non-Indians to pass judgment on reservation families and break them up as they saw fit, said Sandra White Hawk, who was taken from the Rosebud Sioux Reservation when she was 18 months old.
In many cases, missionaries working on reservations would call local authorities to complain about housing conditions. A social worker would then do a home study and, more often than not, build a case recommending a child be taken away, White Hawk said.
Families felt they were powerless to stop the process and allowed white authorities to take over, she said.
Most of the forced adoptions were based on prejudices, White Hawk said. Many
Susan Harness with her adoptive mother Eleanor Woods Thies in a 1961 photo. (Photo provided by Susan Devan Harness )
children lived with extended families — including aunts and uncles — and often did not have a room to themselves. Many of the homes also did not have running water or electricity.
"I think it's interesting that the state would be more interested in yanking a child away from his home than in helping to try to get utilities and other services to these homes," White Hawk said.
White Hawk's parents — both missionaries — viewed her biological family as part of a dangerous social and religious subculture.
"My adoptive mother constantly reminded me that no matter what I did, I came from a pagan race whose only hope for redemption was to assimilate to white culture," White Hawk said.
White Hawk helped form the First Nations Orphans Association, which helps forced adoptees get re-acquainted with their biological families.
"Our job is to help these people heal," she said.
The Child Welfare League has acknowledged the damage it inflicted during the forced-adoption period, issuing a public apology in 2001.
In many instances, American Indian children "were deprived of their culture, their language, connections to their families, their tribe, and in many instances it caused such hurt and sorrow and deprived them of so much happiness in their lives," said Shay Bilchik, president and chief executive of the Child Welfare League.
Like many of the other adoptees, Harness concedes the white household she was raised in gave her better opportunities for traditional success than the one from which she was taken at 18 months old.
"I was given access to voice lessons and music lessons and other things I wouldn't otherwise have a chance at," Harness said. "I'm like the other adoptees who said that even though their households were sometimes abusive, they never would have become the person they've become today" without being adopted.
But there was a cost.
"We were, in many ways, required to be grateful and thankful that we weren't raised with that other family," Harness said.
Also a member of the Confederated Salish Kootenai Tribes, from the Flathead Reservation in western Montana, Harness was removed from her home by a social worker because of "neglect."
She was adopted at age 2 by a white couple — Eleanor and Jed Devan. While her mother simply wanted a child, her dad, Harness said, bought into the noble idea of "saving" an American Indian girl from her ancestry.
Soon others were adopting American Indian children, including church families across the country, she said.
"At the time it was considered the 'in' adoption," Harness said. "If you could save a poor Indian child, you were a good person."
She talked to 25 adoptees in her research and found that, like her, many of them uncomfortably straddled the cultural fence between American Indian and white societies.
Some said they were considered inferior to their white siblings because of their American Indian DNA. "I think that, for instance, when I would get in trouble, it would be because of my genes, because of the bad genes passed onto you," said one adoptee.
Later, many adoptees ran into resentment from tribal members when they returned to the reservation of their birth. They were called "apples" — red on the outside but white on the inside.
"How did I cross from being Indian to be white?" wondered another adoptee. "I lived somewhere in the middle, racially blank."
Several struggled with depression and early drug use. Some committed suicide, Harness said.
Some adoptees' stories didn't end so badly, however. Suzie Fedorko was handed over to Minnesota social workers by her grandmother, after Fedorko's mother left for high school one morning.
Fedorko's adoptive parents — strong Catholics — were loving and gave her a good home, and she went on to start her own family.
Fedorko later learned that her mother — Cathee Dahmen — became a supermodel in the 1970s and hung out with the likes of Mick Jagger and Andy Warhol.
"If I had stayed with my mom, I don't know if she would have had the success she did with her life," Fedorko said.
Harness also has reunited with her biological family and is at peace, somewhat.
She is still angry about times when upon learning she was American Indian, people's assessment of her plummeted. A college professor, for instance, told her she would be better suited for vocational education courses.
"I know that the expectations — or lack of expectations perhaps — that were placed on me as I was growing up and trying to find my place in the world really caused me to limit my abilities, for a long time," Harness said. "But I think I've got my footing in this world at last."
Monte Whaley: 720-929-0907 or firstname.lastname@example.org