ADULT AMERICAN INDIANS WHO WERE PLACED IN
NON-INDIAN FAMILIES AS CHILDREN
About The Study
The informal data collection for this study began in 1986, the result of an increasing number of American Indian adults contacting this researcher in an attempt to discover their tribal roots. All of them had one thing in common: they had been adopted or fostered in non-Indian homes as children. They all told the same story: "I don't know who I am. I am Indian, but I don't know what tribe. I have lost my identity and my culture." Over the years, the confidential file on adult Indian adoptees grew. This researcher began to identify a pattern of emotional suffering among the "Split Feathers" (a name one of the individuals said he had been given and which caught on as a group identity). It was not long before the "Split Feather Syndrome" demanded attention in itself. Every member of the group talked about their psychological problems, using words like depressed, hurt, emotionally abused, confused, anguished, socially dysfunctional, angry, alienated, etc. The extent and prevalence of these emotional problems in the adult Indians appeared to be directly related to the adverse effects of their having lived in a non-Indian home as a child. In February, 1992, a more formal study of American Indian adoptees was undertaken to determine if the "Split Feather Syndrome" was in fact a syndrome. The major study on Split Feathers was still in progress, but repeated, urgent requests for information about the later lives of Indian adoptees indicated a pressing need for information on the possible long-term psychological damage of transcultural adoptions to the adoptees, as seemed to be evidenced by the research data.
Terms Used In This Report
The term "Split Feather" refers to adult Indians, who were expatriated (adoptees, fosterees) from their homes and cultures as children and placed in non-Indian homes. Since there are no statistical data to determine the exact parameters of the Split Feather Syndrome, it is assumed that the term "Split Feather" would apply to any individual who suffers a particular set of psychological, social, and emotional disabilities directly related to the experience of expatriation. The term BIA refers to the Bureau of Indian Affairs, the agency of the United States government under whose direction the majority of infant and child expatriations were/are carried out. ICWA refers to the Indian Child Welfare Act of 1978.
Historical Review Of The Indian Child Welfare Act
The Indian Child Welfare Act (ICWA) of 1978 was designed specifically to stop the wholesale removal of Indian children from their families, which had contributed to the destruction of the traditional extended family structures and Indian community life for over a century. A follow-up study in 1980 by the Colorado Indian Law review revealed that the Act only slowed the removal of children but did not stop it as the Act was intended to do. (Some states do not recognize as sovereign nations the tribes within their borders, therefore do not recognize ICWA as a legal Act.) Tribal leaders called upon the Supreme Court to assure enforcement of the ICWA until amendments could be made to the Act to tighten loopholes through which many Indian children are still being child snatched. At this writing, the amendments have not been made.
Importance Of This Study
The pilot study conducted by this investigator indicated that every Indian child placed in a non-Indian home for either foster care or adoption is placed at great risk for long-term psychological damage as adults. There is, however, a lack of sufficient research studies dedicated specifically to the investigation of this issue. Data supporting the statement of at-risk adult American Indian adoptees come from the Congressional hearings pursuant to the Indian Child Welfare Act (1978). Several articles exist in journals that target transcultural placement of minority children (including American Indian children) in out-of-culture placements, but do not address the adult Indian adoptee or fosteree. Other articles either touch on the subject of the adult Indian adoptee briefly or address related issues. Essentially, the issue of the adult Indian who was placed in a non-Indian home as a child has not been addressed. There are several reasons for the lack of data about the later lives of Indian adoptees. First, the adoptees have been swallowed up by society and are unidentified by any system as being Indian. Most of the adoptions were sealed; Indian children were no longer listed as Indian on birth certificates and were no longer carried on tribal rolls, despite the fact that they were born Indian and would remain Indian all their lives. Inquiries to the Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA) about funding to complete a study on Indian adoptees was given the response that the adoptees were considered non-Indians therefore out of BIA jurisdiction. At the same time, main-stream program administrators such as those in social welfare, family issues, and substance abuse programs, felt that projects on Indians should be funded with set-aside money the U.S. Government "has for Indians" and referred the inquirer to the BIA. Ironically, adult Indian adoptees expressed the same confusion as to their identity as was evidenced by agency administrators: were they or were they not American Indians? Their blood-line said yes; their birth certificates and upbringing said no. The literature that does exist on adult Indians who have experienced out-of-culture placements as children, including the preliminary study conducted by this investigator on which this article is based, indicate that 19 out of every 20 Indian adoptees have psychological problems related to their placement into non-Indian homes. The study determined that there are unique factors of Indian children being placed in non-Indian homes that create damaging effects in the later lives of the children.
Personal testimonies were solicited from adult Indian adoptees at national Indian and non-Indian gatherings, in agency and organizational newsletters, and in city and tribal newspapers nationally. The appeal for information read, "Adult American Indians who were adopted into non-Indian homes as children: We are doing a study on Indian adoptees. Please tell us your story. Confidential, no names required." An address and phone number for responses were listed. The intent was not to influence adoptees to write either negatively or positively about their experiences, but to have them tell in their own words what had happened to them. The personal testimonies of the Split Feathers were given voluntarily. Some of the envelopes containing testimonies arrived with only the post-mark to identify the region where the person lived. Some phone calls began, "I read in the newspaper about your study, and I want to tell you my story", with no names given throughout the conversation. Face-to-face conversation took place in city parks, after hours at national meetings, and in the researcher's office.
The Preliminary Study
In June 1992, the need for an immediate, preliminary study was apparent. To complete a preliminary report, 20 responses were randomly selected from the data file. The material in each response document was analyzed for particular subsets of information: Demographic (gender, tribe if known, age, age at adoption, ethnicity of adoptive parents, etc.); life history; social history, mental, emotional, and physical health, and other information. These subsets were selected because the majority of the respondents included such information in their responses, indicating that those topics were critical issues in their lives as Split Feathers.
Results Of The Preliminary Study
Of the 20 Split Feathers whose testimonies were randomly selected, nine were male, 11 were female. Fourteen of the 20 were removed from their natural families between birth and two years. Four were removed before age five, and two between the ages of six and 12 years. Sixteen went to foster homes first, then adoptive homes. The other four went straight to adoptive homes. Of the 16 who went to foster homes, nine were adopted into those homes, four had at least one other placement before adoption, and three had three or more placements (does not include juvenile correction facilities). The age range of the Split Feathers at the time of response to this study was between 19 and 72 years, with an average age of 35.2 years. The responses were scattered from Connecticut to California, and from Alaska to Texas.
Social Disabilities and Psychological Problems
The analysis of the response data, using key words as indicators of emotional problems, and asking the adoptees to give their opinions of themselves, revealed that all but one of the 20 adult Indians who were adopted into non-Indian families had moderate to severe psychological problems. Nine of them said they had psychosocial problems severe enough to impact negatively on their lives. Three had psychosocial problems severe enough to put them behind bars. Seven experienced moderate psychological problems that impacted negatively on their interpersonal relationships. One had mild psychological problems which he did not think significantly hindered his life style, although he did feel that the inability to work through his identity problems had at times prevented him from accomplishing his goals. Four of the respondents had had long-term counseling, five had had therapy (includes services while incarcerated), seven had had pastoral or other nonprofessional counseling, and four had had no counseling or therapy. All 20 of the respondents indicated that they had difficulty with intimate relationships. The difficulty expressed itself in the Split Feathers' use of the phrase "feeling so much alone," in failed marriages, few long term and/or fulfilling relationships, no close friends or ties with other people, and substance abuse. Four of them said they felt emotionally close to their adoptive families, 12 felt duty-tied, and four expressed no feeling or negative feelings toward their adoptive families. Eighteen of them said their minds dwelled on their natural parents, families, and tribes more often than they did on their adoptive families. Two of them were still living at home, and of the two, one got emotional support from his adoptive parents in finding the natural family, and one did not.
Alcoholism and Substance Abuse Among Split Feathers
Thirteen of the 20 responses analyzed indicated that the respondent had abused alcohol and/or drugs. Reasons for the abuse were frustration, anger, trying to "fit in," forgetting, to "get away from life," and "rebellion against the system." The youngest age at the onset of use of alcohol or drugs was eight years. All 13 said that their use of alcohol or drugs diminished greatly after they found their real identity, e.g., the need to drink/do drugs was gone; they no longer needed them.
All 20 of the respondents said they knew they were different (e.g., dark skin, different kind of face, straight black hair) before they were of elementary school age. All 20 of them experienced negative feelings about being "different," nine of them before the age of four years, all of them before age eight. The feeling of being different intensified for them during school years. Sixteen reported being verbally abused by other children, teachers, and adoptive family members because of their being "dark" or "Indian." All but one of them had problems in school, both academically and socially. All of them felt alienated from their adoptive family and the white culture by the time they reached puberty. Six of the nine males and four of the 11 females had contact with juvenile authorities by age 15. Seventeen of them had problems with alcohol or drug abuse. All of them expressed feelings of hostility toward their adoptive families for denying them their cultural heritage, although half of them also said they were appreciative that the adoptive family took care of them. All of them said the system that caused their adoption to be into non-Indian families was wrong; and four expressed hatred for the government that allowed it to happen.
All 20 of the Split Feathers felt that the were average or above in intelligence, but half of them had spent time in education remedial programs in school. Five respondents had been labeled as "learning disabled." Two were classified as "slow learners." All of them had failed at least one grade in school, and each of the failed individuals indicated that they had difficulty learning the way other children learned. Reading was the most difficult subject for the Split Feathers. Surprisingly, math was not that difficult. "Numbers are logical," said one respondent. The overall picture of the educational success of the Split Feather group was rather dismal, however. The inability to absorb information in the same manner that the other children did beget failure for them, and failure beget more failure, poor self esteem, and often either withdrawal or aggression. Frustrations in elementary school led to difficult junior high school years and early drop outs in high school. Of the 20 respondents, only five completed a high school degree. Of the other 15, one went into the military, three were in correctional facilities, four got married, and the other seven entered the job market with little or varying degrees of success. Later in their lives, six of them had either taken college courses or attended advanced training for job placement. None of them described themselves as successes, although one respondent said he was "doing all right."
Choices for Change
If they could choose to live their lives over, none of them would chose to be adopted into non-Indian families again. Choices for adoptive families were (if their birth parents were not a choice): first, staying within their families; next, with relatives; third, within the tribe; fourth with members of other tribes. One preference was not to be born if they were going to be adopted again.
Reasons for Not Wanting to be Placed in Non-Indian Homes
The reasons for not choosing to be in non-Indian homes, in order of importance, were:
The following are short quotes from several of the Split Feathers, using their own words. Some of the quotes have been edited to ensure the personal privacy of the writer. Our sincere gratitude goes to those individuals who made this report possible by contacting us, often at the cost of painful memories returning.
"I owe my adoptive family a lot, and I'm not denying that. They gave me everything they could, but they could not give me the thing I needed most: to know who I really was, and to know my Indian heritage."
"They gave me everything a child could ever ask for, except my Native American identity. All my years growing up in school I was cut down, made fun of because I was Indian. I was darker, had dark hair, and I was "different." I grew up resenting who I was: what I was, of course I kept all the shame to myself, therefore building resentment. I am waiting now for enrollment in my tribe and waiting to establish contact with my biological family. I wish I had grown up being proud - like I am proud today."
"Native Americans need to be provided foster homes that have Indian parents, so that the attachments (to tribal identities) don't have to be broken."
"My foster mother was very abusive. She always said we were dirty because we were dark. She beat us often, made our noses bleed. But the worst thing she did was deny us our Indian heritage. Courts should never let anything like this happen. Indian children need to be with Indian families, not white families that are so different from Indians."
"I am 23 years old, adopted when I was six months. These past years I felt as though I had no real identity. Whites don't like me because I am Indian. Mexicans don't like me because I am Indian. The worse thing, though, is that I don't fit in with the Indians, either, because I was not raised in the culture and don't know the ways of the tribe."
"I had to cut my hair. That was terrible for me, because having long hair was all I had of my heritage. And they took that, too."
"Adoption causes such intense inner pain that you do anything just to get away from it. No one understands you, you are different, and there's no one to talk to. You withdraw into yourself, keep it all inside. That's how I got into trouble with alcohol: it was pain medicine."
"I am an American Indian who was adopted into a non-Indian home as a small child. I know what happens to Native kids who are torn from their families, culture, and people. I know what it did to me, and I watched what it did to my brother and sister. My brother lasted only five years in this white home. It wasn't that anyone was abusive, but they just didn't understand us. We were different. And my brother had to get away from being forced to become something he wasn't. He ran away and ended up in juvenile court. I lasted eight years, then I was in juvenile court, too. I was in and out of jail and prison since I got out of juvenile at age 16. I have awesome amounts of anger and rage inside me. I have no family or home. I have NOTHING but my anger and my hatred. We were Indian, but we had to live in a white home within a white society, a society that didn't accept us. We fought every day, fought the other kids who hated us because we were Indian. I watched my brother and sister suffer and run away, and I hated my foster family ever since. And I despise and hate the U.S. government for letting adoptions of Indian kids into non-Indian homes happen."
"Adoptions? Adoption is the same as extended torture. It never goes away, this fact that you are Indian. Not only is it mental and emotional, but it becomes physical torture in a lot of cases, because white parents don't know how to deal with Indian children. They think they know us, know what we're thinking, how we feel, what we want. But they don't. I didn't really talk to anyone openly until I was 17 and found an Indian friend. Then I could talk about what I really felt. I hid my feelings from my foster family. I never let them know how I suffered. I knew they would not understand. And I thought that if I told them that they would take my Indian part away from me, too. So I hid it from them."
"I was adopted at age four, started school just before five, grew up in a middle class family that was okay. But I started having dreams about age five about being taken away (from the adoptive home), taken back to my family, by Indians. My family didn't pay much attention to the Indian spirit within me, or to me, either. I communicated more with animals than I did people. In the 6th grade I started having problems with the other kids. Whites, Mexicans, and others didn't like me because of being Indian. I got into lots of fights and became a loner."
"Our foster mother always wrote us down as whites. We knew we were different, not only on the outside but on the inside, too, but we didn't know why or how. My foster mom could never scrub the Indian off our skin. She could write us down as white but she could not make us white. We were so happy when we found out that we were Indian. At last we had an identity, a reason to be brown. We belonged somewhere, to someone, and we vowed that we would find our true families as soon as we were old enough. We were seven years old at the time."
"I am 72 years old. I was adopted into a white family at age 1-1/2 when my mother died. I realized I was different before I ever went to school. When I asked, my foster parents told me I was Indian, and from that day I identified with Indians, because that was what I was. But I didn't know who I was, and that heartache and anguish has been with me for nearly 70 years. I hope your study can help me find out who I am before I die; I don't want to die not knowing my true identity. They (the government) sealed my birth certificate so I could never find my identity and never see my blood relatives. The pain of this is never ending."
"I was adopted at age 12 with two younger brothers. If the three of us hadn't been together, I don't think we could have survived. We were not allowed to attend any Native American activities. Nobody really wanted us or loved us, I don't know why they adopted us. I don't know why the BIA took us away from our birth families. That was 28 years ago. Nobody seemed to care what happened to Indian kids back then."
"The bonding you speak of never existed, not between me and my adoptive parents. As an adult, I have experienced some feeling of not belonging, or more explicitly, the feeling that I am not completely accepted by my adoptive people. As a child, I saw myself as not feeling cohesive with my foster parents, and I felt this from a very young age. They took care of me, and I appreciate that, but there was not that true bonding that comes from love, only a kind of fondness. Since high school and college I have further insight into what I missed because I was adopted by a non-Indian family, and I cry."
"Most bewildering is the feeling of contentment I enjoy when I am among Indians. That is what I missed out on when I was a child. It is so beautiful to be with people who are like yourself."
"The loss I feel is that of any adopted child who loses his family, but with a generous portion of a lost identity and a lost cultural thrown in. One loss is bad, three are devastating."
"We were picked up like souvenirs by our adoptive parents, remembrances of one of their trips into Indian country. That's how we were thought of, how we thought of ourselves. Cute little souvenirs. Display items. But not humans with needs. But then we grew up. And adolescent girls are not cute souvenirs any more, they are problems, because white boys don't date Indian girls, and emotional hurts lead to family quarrels. By then it was too late, we were stuck in the white society - and we hated it."
The following are quotes from non-Indian adoptive parents. These quotes are not part of the random sample but are included here as part of this report.
From an adoptive father:
"We did a damn' good job of raising this boy. He has a top-notch job and is going to make it in this world. We made him fit in. We never let him find out who his parents were, or his tribe. We told him he was Indian and that we had rescued him from those savages. If it hadn't been for us he would be probably be an alcoholic living like an animal on the reservation. You know what kind of squalor is out there. So he is grateful to us. We gave him the chance to make something of himself. Talk to him yourself, he will tell you. " From the adult adopted son: "WHO AM I?" (That was all he had time to say before his adoptive father took the phone again).
From a long-term foster mother:
"Because of my religion I took this child. I took good care of him, too, gave him everything he needed. And looks what he did, he went right back to the Indians. Isn't that gratitude for you? He said that we never gave him his identity. So what? Identity won't get you an education or a job. It doesn't count for anything. What he needed was to be cleansed from that pagan life and to know God as I know God. That is why I fought to keep him."
Foster mother refused to identify the son so we could talk with him.
From a non-Indian foster mother:
"We gave him everything we could, but we could not give him his heritage. He is successful, he has a job, but part of him mourns because he doesn't know who he is. He doesn't talk about it, but I see it in his eyes, this pain. I know we could go through the court and petition to open the birth records, but he is so afraid that he won't be accepted by his tribe because he has been alienated from them by his adoption. I personally think that if he were to find that he couldn't fit in with his tribe because he was not raised Indian, and knowing he never really fit into the white world because he was Indian, that he might try to commit suicide. Can you image how it must be to be a man without an identity? I love him with all my heart, but if I could do it all over again, I would never adopt him, it has hurt him too much to be in a white home. I would have worked very hard to find a home for him with his relatives. Then maybe today his eyes would smile."
Discussion Of The Findings
This study has revealed several pieces of information: (1) Placing American Indian children in foster/adoptive non-Indian homes puts them at great risk for experiencing psychological trauma leading to the development of long-term emotional and psychological problems in later life; (2) The cluster of long-term psychological liabilities exhibited by American Indian adults who experienced non-Indian placement as children may be recognized as a syndrome (syndrome: a set of symptoms which occur together. From Dorland's Medical Dictionary, 24th edition, 1965). (3) The Split Feather Syndrome appears to be related to a reciprocal-possessive form of belongingness unique to survivors of cultures, which have faced annihilation. This researcher has identified the following unique factors of Indian children being placed in non-Indian homes as the factors that create such damaging results in the later lives of the children. The split Feathers themselves have identified the following factors as major contributors to the development of the syndrome, in order of their importance (the first item was mentioned the most, the second item was mentioned the second most times, etc.):
1. The loss of Indian identity.
2. The loss of family, culture, heritage, language, spiritual beliefs, tribal affiliation, and tribal ceremonial experiences.
3. Growing up being different.
4. Experiencing discrimination from the dominant culture.
5. Cognitive difference in the way Indian children receive, process, integrate, and apply new information - in short, a difference in learning style.
Other contributing factors included: physical, sexual, and mental abuse from adoptive family members; loss of birth brothers and sisters; uncaring or abusive foster/adoptive families; not being told anything or being lied to about their adoption; not being given advanced notice of moves; too many moves; nobody to talk to; loss of personal property.
The following sections will explore the five major factors listed above that contribute to the development of the Split Feather Syndrome.
1. The Loss Of Indian Identity
The loss of "American Indian" identity appears to be one of the most important factors in the development of the Split Feather Syndrome. The data indicate that the loss of the Indian identity is not the same as the loss of personal identity, although it included the personal aspect. Additionally, however, is the loss of one's belonging to his/her real culture. Almost all of the respondents indicated a defiant, almost fierce pride in being an American Indian. When questioned about what the Indian identity was, the responses repeated most frequently were "I belong to that tribe;" "That is MY tribe." The individual belonged to the tribe, and the tribe likewise belonged to him, a reciprocal possessiveness of cultural identity which may be found in members of other cultures that have undergone great grief's, such as the survivors of the holocaust. The belongingness of tribal identity also seemed to embody the reason for one's being "different", the roots of ancestral pride, the foundations of mystical beliefs and tenets, and as one respondent wrote, "the drums that thunder in my blood." The Indian identity, in those terms, meant much more than personal or family identity. It became the totality of the person's existence without which he was nothing.
2. The Loss Of Family, Culture, Heritage, Language, Spiritual Beliefs, Tribal Affiliation and Tribal Ceremonial Experiences.
The reciprocal possessiveness of the factors listed in number 2 indicated that the Split Feathers not only felt a loss of these "possessions" because they were his or hers by birthright, but that the individual, in turn, was the "possession" of the things identified here. For example, not only did the individuals mourn the loss of their families but they mourned their families' loss of them, as well. The loss of their biological family, extended family, clan and tribe was an unending grief for the respondents, a grief that spawned deep-seated resentment and hatred for the adoption system. Their biological relatives belonged to them, and they belonged to the relatives. There was a belongingness that connected the adoptees with relatives, clan members, and tribal members. They could see in each other Indians who were reflections of themselves, a fact that satisfied the human need to be like those around them. The loss of culture, heritage, and language seemed to encompass the total lifestyle that the respondents had missed. One said, "I was supposed to have a naming ceremony when I was two years old, and I didn't get it. I don't have a name. How can I go back to my tribe if I don't have a name?" Another wrote, "Somebody said that we could learn all we needed to learn about our culture and heritage from books and videos from our school. What a laugh! What we got was a watered down, Indian-style Sesame Street version of what some white person thought all Indians were like." All of the Split Feathers said they read books, watched TV shows, and saw movies about Indians when they were children. No matter what the plot of the story, they championed the Indians, even when John Wayne was on the winning side. Even, the majority said, when the Indians were portrayed as brutal savages, drunks, or dirty thieves. Their feeling toward real life Indians was not any different. "They told me my parents were alcoholics and that I was lucky to be out of the home," one respondent said. "But I don't feel that way. Poor Mom, poor Dad, maybe I could have helped some way. I'll never know, I never had the chance to find out. Nobody ever asked me if I wanted to stay or not, they just drove up one day and took me. My mother had this horrible, disbelieving look on her face. I never saw her again." Despite the negative portrayal of Indian people in the media and in most non-Indian peoples' minds, the respondents were proud to be Indian. Many of them had been told horror stories about their birth families, which always ended with "aren't you glad you came to live with us?" The fact was that most of the stories expounded on the negative aspects of the biological families, not on the positive, were twisted versions of the truth, or were outright lies. None of the respondents said they were "glad" about their adoptive placement. Tribal spirituality seemed to transcend the adoptive experience. All of the respondents regarded themselves as being spiritual, either in an organized church, a personal religious way, or in their tribal belief system. Of the 20 respondents, fourteen reported having extrasensory experiences from childhood, ranging from knowing about things before they happened, having dreams that came true, knowing what someone else was thinking, to being able to communicate with animals. Seventeen of the respondents said they had actively sought more information about their tribal traditional beliefs, hoping to find explanations for the mystical experiences in their lives or to learn more about their own tribal beliefs. Most of the respondents viewed tribal ceremonial experiences as an integral part of spirituality. While 11 of the 20 had been able to experience at least one tribal ceremony, nine had not had the opportunity. Thirteen of the 20 had attended at least one Indian pow-wow or celebration, while seven had been denied the privilege but expressed optimism about attending one in the future. Four of them had taken part in sweats. One of the 20 said he was allowed to attend Indian celebrations as a child. Re-entry into the culture took place after the Split Feathers had reclaimed their Indian identity. Sixteen of the 20 respondents said that they were ignorant or knew very little about traditional ceremonies that they had missed over the years, although four of them knew about several of their tribal customs and traditions associated with ceremonies. All of them felt they had been robbed of the ceremonies that other tribal children were given but that they had never experienced. All 20 of them said they had several pieces of Indian art, such as jewelry, pottery, basketry, or such that held a ceremonial meaning for them. Silver and turquoise, beaded items, and feathers were mentioned most frequently. One individual had been given a ceremonial eagle feather. Tribal affiliation - being enrolled in a tribe - was a serious subject for all 20 of the Split Feathers. Sixteen of them had had their enrollment canceled when they were adopted into non-Indian homes. The names of four had remained on tribal rolls. At the time of this study, six of them had two sets of birth records, one of Indian ancestry bearing their birth names and family names, and another set bearing their adoptive names. The one respondent who had not yet found his Indian identity had been searching archival records for years trying to locate some clue to his tribal affiliation. "Those pieces of paper - the adoption papers - took away my Indian rights," another respondent wrote. "Those papers took away my entitlement to my land settlement money, my right to live on tribal land, to vote in tribal elections, to apply for tribal scholarships, my right to e and Indian. My birthright was stolen from me. But they could not take away the fact that I was n Indian. I burned those papers. I hated them."
3. Growing up Being Different
In describing what they meant by being "different," the Split Feathers used such words as dark skin, black hair, dark eyes, "the Indian look." Besides physical differences, they also included having different philosophical concepts, even though most of them had been adopted too young to have learned any tribal philosophy. The 14 respondents who said that they had extrasensory experiences felt that this ability made them even more different. The differences made them feel alienated from other people. All of the Split Feathers said that they were extremely self-conscious. Some were painfully shy and withdrawn as children, others became belligerent and aggressive. Being different also included the concepts that non-Indian had of them, e.g., Indians had certain traits (stoic, brave), behaved certain ways (never showed emotion, spoke very little), had certain knowledge inherent in their blood (when it was going to rain, herbal remedies). These imposed expectations were burdensome to most of the Split Feathers, who felt guilty because they could not fulfill them. One respondent said it made her feel like a "fake" Indian because she could not fit the stereotype of "Indian." Nine of the 20 respondents said that they felt frustrated and angry because of the unfair expectations placed on them, while the opportunity to be all that was expected of them as "Indians" had been taken away. Although being different created major psychological problems for the Split Feathers, it was also a source of intense pride. One respondent wrote, "Being different was horrible, like being a freak. At the same time I was proud. Feeling horrible and proud about the same thing splits your brain apart. You hate what it does to you."
4. Experiencing Discrimination From the Dominant Culture
All 20 of the respondents in the random sample experienced some degree of discrimination. Words used to describe the cause of discrimination were "being dark," "being Indian", and "not being white." Discrimination came from adults as well as children and occurred within the adoptive families, from relatives and neighbors, and at schools, churches, and social functions. The average age when "knowing I was different" began was three years of age; the average age when discrimination began to be a serious problem for the respondents was 11 years. Puberty was a traumatic time for all the respondents, when they learned that their limited acceptance in the non-Indian world did not include dating white youth. Thirteen of the 20 reported some amount of alienation from their adoptive families during this period, from hostility to acting out rage and running away. The estrangement increased as the adoptees reached young adulthood. "I asked a girl to dance with me at a junior high party. Her brother dragged me outside and beat me up, told me no dirty Indian was going to get close to his sister," one respondent wrote. Another respondent wrote that as a young girl she never got asked out on dates. Her adopted mother told her to "Go find yourself an Indian." That was the first time she realized that she was not being asked out because of her race. Discrimination was also felt in the work force as well as the social realm when Split Feathers reached adulthood. Jobs often went to less qualified non-Indians. Promotions were slow in coming, infrequent, or denied. One respondent stated that he felt employers never really trusted him because he looked so "Indian," and that his appearance was against him in obtaining employment. Another one wrote, "I had just gone through the alcohol rehab program. I was pleased that I had been sober for three months. In the program I had the opportunity to do a sweat, and I really hung on to that experience, to that little bit of the Indian world. Then I went to the state VR office to get help in finding a job. They told me to cut my hair. My long hair was the only part of me that I could claim as my heritage. I said I wouldn't cut it. They said forget about working, no one would hire me looking like a wild Indian, only if I looked tame."
5. Cognitive Difference In The Way Indian Children Receive, Process,
Integrate, And Apply New Information
(A Difference In Learning Style)
Based on the Split Feather testimonies, it would appear that American Indians have a cognitive process different from non-Indians. While all 20 of them said that they felt that were average or above in intelligence, half of them had spent time in education remedial programs in school. Five respondents had been labeled as "learning disabled." Two were classified as "slow learners." All of them had failed at least one grade in school. The reasons for academic problems were given in episodes. "I just couldn't learn like all the other kids. The teacher talked too much, too many words. I learned better through my eyes." "When I was in the fifth grade, I got punished in front of the whole class for not remembering the capital city of Wyoming. That's when I decided to learn my own way, not theirs. I worked out my own strategy all by myself, adopted family didn't know what I was doing so they couldn't help me." "I kept thinking either there's something wrong with my brain or theirs, because our brains don't work the same way when it comes to learning. And since I was the only Indian in the class, I figured out that there was something wrong with my brain. It was frustrating; I hated school. I could learn okay, and I could learn fast outside school, but in my school lessons I had to do it their way, not mine. And I failed." Reading was the most difficult subject for the Split Feathers. Surprisingly, math was not that difficult. "Numbers are logical," said one respondent. The overall picture of the educational success of the Split Feather group was rather dismal, however. The inability to absorb information in the same manner that the other children did beget failure for them, and failure beget more failure, poor self-esteem, and often either withdrawal or aggression. Frustrations in elementary school led to difficult junior high school years and early drop-outs in high school. Of the 20 respondents, only five completed a high school degree. Of the other 15, one went into the military, three were in correctional facilities, four got married, and the other seven entered the job market with little or varying degrees of success. Later in their lives, six of them had either taken college courses or attended advanced training for job placement. None of them described themselves as successes, although one respondent said he was "doing all right."
The Effects Of Reclaimed Indian Identity On The Split Feathers
For 19 of the 20 individuals in this preliminary study (one had not yet found his tribe nor his tribal identity), repatriation or reclamation of their tribal identity was described as a rebirth experience. Although fear of not being accepted was a major personal problem, and threats of disowning them came from adoptive parents, all of them said they were glad they had pursued their quests to find out who they were. Descriptors used for the experience were "I felt whole for the first time in my life." "Thank God I finally know who I am!" "I finally found what I am, what is part of me, what I am part of." "I found the missing part of me and put it back in place. Now I can really be alive." "I found were I really belonged, my place, my home, my true identity." When asked how they felt about rejoining a cultural group that was frequently described in degrading terms (drunk Indians, lazy, dirty, stupid) and against which there were many racist, bigoted, and prejudiced people, not one of the Split Feathers said they would change their minds. From their responses, it appeared that social, economic, and cultural labels had no impact whatever on their repatriation decisions. Most of them said they began helping their birth families and relatives as soon as they found out who they were. They received tribal teachings in return, a reciprocal process that satisfied the needs of the whole family. Eighteen of the 19 respondents who had reclaimed their Indian identity said their personal lives had changed dramatically for the better after the reclamation. A good description of the change, written by one respondent, reads, "The weight of hurting, loneliness, anger, and sorrow I carried all those years was dropped, and my soul could soar." Another said "It's like I was blind, stumbling through life looking for myself, and now - now I can see." The respondents used the following statements to indicate the profound change in their psychological health, in order of how often they were repeated: (1) Decrease in depressive feelings; (2) Decrease in alcohol and drug abuse; (3) Decrease in aggressive behaviors; (4) Increase in self-esteem; (5) Feelings of love, joy, generosity, sympathy, understanding; (6) Feelings of finding a purpose in life; (7) Increase in spiritual activities; (8) Increase in days worked (working more regularly, finding a job, getting a better job). Others mentioned were spending more time with my own family, spending leisure time constructively, making a commitment to carry through with my responsibilities, paying more attention to the needs of other people, learning more about my tribe and my spiritual beliefs, going back to school to get my GED, taking care of myself, looking at the sky instead of the dirt (dreaming dreams again), and smiling a lot more often.
A Survey Of The Literature
Research studies have found that adoption in itself creates psychological problems for the adoptees, resulting in the overrepresentation of this group in (social service) treatment (Hartman: 1984). Severance from one's biological heritage leaves an adoptees with no biological or familial identity (Partridge: ----). Lack of personal identity, in turn, creates emotional stress equal to that of prisoners of war. The ego, the psychosocial center of one's being, is manifest in the identity. If one has no identity, one has no basis for his or her being. And a true identity cannot be founded on an assumed heritage. When an individual is denied a true heritage, a breakdown of the psyche occurs that undermines the concept of self, self-esteem, self-confidence, and self-respect. It creates a false-world reality in which the person without a true identity has to function. It is no wonder that psychiatric clinics are filled with adoptees who are unable to cope with no identity in a false world. Recent research on transcultural adoptions revealed that children adopted into culturally different homes experienced the same identity loss and false-world concepts as other adoptees, and in addition, they experienced a loss of visual connectediness and a loss of cultural identity. This means that they don't look like the other people in the family. Loss of visual connectedness means there is no reinforcement of belonging, or connectedness, because there are no physical resemblance to the adoptive family. The lack of visual connectedness creates a feeling of invisibility. Also, the common difference is that the adoptee is from a darker race of people than the adoptive family. The dominant society tends to relate light skin, hair and eye color with superiority, a fact that is increasingly apparent in today's society. Darker usually means inferior, and when a transcultural adoption occurs where the child is darker than the adoptive family, the child will almost always experience feelings and treatment of inferiority. Therefore a situation has been created that usually means long-term emotional, social, and psychological problems for the adoptees. For Indian children there is, in addition to the lack of identity, the false-world concept, and the dark-race inferiority complex is the loss of culture, language, tribal affiliation, tribal identity, and extended family relationships. Indian children will remain Indian throughout their lives, which means the dominant society will always view them as different. When Indian adoptees reach puberty, the impact of their Indianness is fully realized, as the society they were raised in begins to frown on their close relationships with fair skinned children. Also, the loss of one's cultural heritage, especially when that culture has had such high visibility in different media, is extremely painful. It leads to anger and rage over the loss and long-term psychological suffering. A review of research related to Indian adoptions, including testimony before the Congressional Hearing Committee during the writing of the Indian Child Welfare Act, indicate that the knowledge of one's Indian culture is critical for Indian children. John Redhorse, Joan Smith, Dorothy Miller, Ron Lewis and Syd Byler (cite Black Book), all tribal members, have documented the crippling effects of being denied a cultural heritage. They have described the psychological loss as constant anguish. Being denied the knowledge of their traditional ways, ceremonies, rituals, languages, and the experiences of being Indian in an Indian culture has created emotional emptiness and physical agony for some, and for others a seething internal rage over their severance from their cultural identities. The adoption of Indian children into non-Indian homes is viewed by sovereign nations as a form of genocide. One study revealed that 20 to 25 percent of all Indian children were placed in non-Indian environments between 1950 and 1978, when the Indian Child Welfare Act was signed. It is not only the children who are lost, but their progeny hereafter. Tribal rolls are depleted to the exponent of two generations, because the majority of tribes enroll members who are at least one-fourth Indian. For tribes who enroll one-eighth and one-sixteenth blood members, the loss is even greater. Added to the numerical loss of tribal members is the damage done to the fundamental social structure of the culture. Extended family members are interdependent, and if several members are missing, there are gaps in the interdependency system that weaken the tribal structure of caring for one another. Also, there is a complex ceremonial and religious structure into which tribal members are born. When individuals are missing and cannot fulfill the roles they were to play in ceremonies and spiritual activities, the whole tribe suffers. My studies indicate that a large number of the children who are removed from the tribes come from families which have community significance either in leadership or in traditional religions. This creates an extremely tenuous position for the culture, because the extinction of spiritual teachings and tribal leadership means the annihilation of a culture. The word "bonding" appeared in literature in the mid-1980's (Klaus and Kennell: 1982) and was used to measure maternal behaviors, not the behaviors of the infant or child (Myers: 1984; Seashore:1973, Whitt:1982). The Ainsworth Strange Situations Paradigm Study (1978) inventoried many child attachment behaviors, put them in categories, ranked them according to how desirable they were (good, not good, bad), and then made predictions about a child's future success in life based on those ratings. Many studies using the Ainsworth inventory scale inferred that there was an "inherent flaw" (resulting emotional problems) in babies if they did not have the "right" bonding behaviors and that they would be marred by it the rest of their lives (Main et al: 1985; Main and Goldwyn: 1985, Bowlby: 1973, Sroufe: 1983, Kobak and Sceery: 1985). "Bonding" became synonymous with early childhood studies in the late 1980's, and the basis for classification of good-not good-bad behaviors appears to be modeled after a "standard" American family, such as a composite of the Clever Family of television fame, Dick-and-Jane elementary school books, and Mr. Spock of the Baby-Book Occult. However, InJzendoorn and Kroonenberg (1988) found that research using the Ainsworth Strange Situation Paradigm in various countries seemed to show marked differences in ... attachment. Classifications across cultures, and seemed to deviate strongly from the American "standard." The studies of Arend et al (1979) failed to establish significant differences between Dick-and-Jane babies and other babies as adults, and concluded that each of us are individuals and that there are a multitude of life situations that contribute to making us who we are. This is in marked contrast to the marked-for-life concepts based on the nature of early childhood bonding hypothesized in earlier studies. Bowlby's (1973) writings indicated that children (and adults) are capable of multiple bonding (forming psychological ties) with any number of individuals. Psychological bonding then, in itself, is not as important an issue as it was first thought, but is still used today by lawyers and social welfare workers to determine child placements. The issue of a child perceiving a foster parent as a psychological parent has emerged into the "Best Interest" argument that supports ties to the foster parents, not the birth parents, and ultimately ends in the child being adopted into a non-Indian home. Dr. Mitchell, Dr. Lamb and Dr. Goldberg, in their respective studies, have proven that humans form multiple bonding or psychological attachments. They have been quite critical of the nuclear family foci which purports a one-time attachment to parental figures only. That view of attachment, in their opinions, is extremely myopic and seems to be limited to the psychological theories of specific Caucasian groups. A majority of the world's cultures include extended families and multiple interdependent attachments among members. American Indian tribes maintain extended family situations with little emphasis on the nuclear family, which is considered a part of the whole. Extended families include all close blood relatives as family. The clan system includes remote relatives as clan relatives. Tribal membership provides an individual with relatives of the whole tribe. It would appear, based on testimony from non-Indian family adopters, non-Indian lawyers, and non-Indian social workers in recent court cases, that Indian children are incapable of psychological ties with their birth parents, families, communities, and cultures, and that psychological ties only occur between the Indian child and the non-Indian adoptive parents. Data in this study suggest, however, that the ties between Indian children and their birth families and culture are extremely strong, and that ties between Indian children and non-Indian foster/adoptee families is foster parent-tie-to-Indian child, not Indian child-ties-to-foster parent. Another side to the stacked-deck-against-the-Indians case studies scenarios of Future Split Feather v BIA/State Child Welfare Agency reveals an inequity in economic recourses. Research into recent ICWA cases indicated that financially secure non-Indian families wishing to adopt Indian children have the money to retain excellent, well established lawyers to argue their cases (not the child's case), while tribes, suffering under the extremely short-sighted funding of the BIA (i.e., the U.S. Government) for ICWA, often have little funding, if any, to pursue ICWA cases. The Indian identity of an Indian child, his/her connectedness with the birth family, and his/her personal power were the issues that were revealed in this study as being most critical to his/her emotional health. The study found that most Split Feathers listed the following as missing from their lives: an identity with their Indian heritage; a connectedness with their biological families; and the power, as a child and later as a young adult, to do anything about it. Searching for their tribal roots has become an obsession for many Indian adoptees who feel, in the words of one Indian adoptee, that their "soul was raped by severance from my Nation." "Best Interests" issues usually revolve around the bonding issue, with the assumption that bonding between child and foster/adoptive parents has occurred and that the child would suffer emotional trauma if removed. The inference here is that "emotional trauma" would result in "bad" behaviors, and consequently the child would suffer throughout life. Studies with adult adoptees prove otherwise (Sorosky, Baran, Pannor: 1978). Adoptees have stress rates higher in anxiety than prisoners of war (Reynolds, Levy, Eisnitz: 1977), and one-third of them state that they would have chosen not to be born if they had to be adopted again (Campbell, Lee, Silverman, Patti: 1981). Studies of American Indian adults who were adopted into non-Indian families as children show that these children have greater problems with self identity, self esteem, and inter-personal relationships than do their peers from non-Indian and Indian homes (Locust: 1992). Regardless of age at placement, Indian adoptees list identity with their family and their tribe as their first priority, and the sorrow of not knowing their culture, language, heritage and family as a life-long, often emotionally debilitating anguish (Locust: 1992). While adoptive mothers often report jealousy of the birth parent, feeling threatened by the birth mother, feeling that the child "belongs" only to them, and admit to untruths and secrecy to try to keep the child (Partridge: 1992; Campbell et al: 1991), adult adoptees often develop an inner rage at these tactics and feel alienated, angered, and deprived of their inherent rights as human beings (Campbell et al, 1991; Locust: 1992). Adoptees report that the loss of biological relatedness (i.e., loss of relatedness to others with their same skin color, physical features, and racial characteristics) is a void that is confusing and hurtful (Partridge: 1991).
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