On Indians, Identity and Adoption

While attending the University of Montana in the early 1980s, Susan Devan Harness was seeking some answers about the usual—her past, her path, her future. Coming-of-age was complicated, though, by the fact that she’d been lied to about her birth family and culture; she knew only that she’d been adopted off the Flathead Indian Reservation by white parents. “Contact an elder,” a friend advised her. “The role of an elder is to help people in need.”

It is perhaps sweet justice, then, that Harness finds herself now in that very role, sharing her struggle with marginalization and articulating the difficulties in residing in that in-between space of being American Indian/not-American Indian, particularly in regard to transracial adoption.

It’s a story that must be spoken, she says. Harness, who graduated with an MA in Creative Nonfiction from CSU in 2016, has written Bitterroot: A Salish Memoir of Transracial Adoption, published last fall. Adopted off reservation when she was two, she was told by the white couple who raised her that her biological parents had died in a car wreck. Soon after graduating from college, Harness asked a social worker if there was any way she could find out about her family. Two weeks later, the social worker revealed that her birth mother had not died, but was living only 50 miles north of her. She had assumed both her parents had been Native Americans from the reservation; she later found out that her father was white.

Her journey of discovering her own truth was, of course, part of a larger, darker set of lies. Her adoption arose out of the controversial and now-ended Bureau of Indian Affairs program, which disrupted generations of people. Before the Indian Child Welfare Act of 1978, 25 to 35 percent of Native children were being adopted out of their homes. “When you get rid of a third of a generation of people, that absolutely fragments a culture,” she explains. Furthermore, there was no simple way for her to reclaim what had been taken.

What she needed was to become proud of who she was, which was Indian, not-Indian. She needed to face the hard truth that when you find your biological family, a family is not always miraculously formed. She also needed to find a way to live in the discomfort. 

For her, speaking out has been key. At conferences and panels, what she has to say about transracial adoption ruffles feathers—her uncomfortable story has certainly made others uncomfortable. “When you have a transracial adoption, all kinds of ideas get funneled into that practice,” she told me. “One is that there’s an underlying belief that the original community doesn’t know how to take care of their own children. Also, kids become pawns, or seen as property. This is devastating to the concept of self.” Harness also noted that policies such as child placement were intended to weaken tribal culture and fracture family ties: “I believe the bottom line of the placement of Indian kids with white parents has more to do with acquiring the land and its resources than the betterment of the child.”   

This is not an easy thing for some to hear. Though the Indian Child Welfare Act was created explicitly to curb the adoption of Native children by non-Natives, and to help maintain a cultural connection, there are still gaps, and Harness would have all adoptive parents remember:  “You don’t own a child. That child has a past, a history that is different from yours, and we all must absolutely acknowledge that.”  She paused and glanced at the sky. “My story is what I have to offer. It’s one illustration of the challenges.”

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