It's difficult to know how many American Indian children were adopted by white families in the 1950s and 60s, because records are sketchy at best. White Earth Tribal Chair Erma Vizenor believes about 25 percent of the children on her reservation were adopted by non-Indian parents. Vizenor recently met one of those children when she stopped for gas on the way home from work. A young woman recognized the tribal leader and asked for help finding her family.
“It's about healing and learning how to be in balance and understanding who we are.”Sandy Whitehawk
"She said, 'Did you know my mom?' I said, 'Of course I did. I knew your mom. She's not living anymore.' 'Oh,' she said, 'What was she like?' I said, 'Your mother was a bubbly happy person.'"
After a reflective pause, Vizenor continues the story.
"I knew her mom. I went to high school with her. She had a baby. The baby was just taken away. (She was told) 'You have no option. This is what's best for your baby.' She couldn't bring her baby home," recalls Vizenor.
Indian babies were put up for adoption for many reasons. Poverty and alcohol caused some mothers to give up their children. But there was also a government policy of assimilation designed to make Indians forget about their culture and history.
Many Indian women were told adoption was the only option. Adoption programs sponsored by church groups were facilitated by local, state, and federal government agencies. It's likely hundreds of American Indian children born in Minnesota were adopted by families across the country. The practice continued until Congress passed the Indian Child Welfare Act in 1978, giving tribes more control over adoptions.
Hearing from some of those adoptees prompted White Earth Tribal Chair Erma Vizenor to support a welcome home ceremony for those who want to reconnect with their tribal culture.
The idea came from Sandy Whitehawk, who runs a small non profit in Minneapolis that tries to help American Indian adoptees find their families.
Whitehawk is driven by her own story. Born on the Rosebud reservation in South Dakota, she was sent to live with a white family when she 18 months old. Growing up in a mostly white small town, she was encouraged to forget her birthplace.
"Don't grow up to be a good for nothing Indian. You're just going to be a drunken Indian like your mother. Those were things I heard all the time," says Whitehawk.
After struggling for years with substance abuse, Whitehawk realized she needed to understand where she came from, so at age 35, she made her first trip back to the reservation where she was born.
"The very first thing I noticed when I went on the reservation was that I finally looked like someone else," remembers Whitehawk. "I noticed I was more relaxed. There's something you can't put words to, to walk on your homeland where you know your relatives feet have also touched. That's healing, because it's where you began."
Sandy Whitehawk learned she was one of nine children. Seven were put up for adoption. She's reunited with some of her siblings, as well as aunts, uncles and cousins.
Many American Indian families were scattered with the wind. Some children were raised in affluent homes, afforded privilege their birth parents could never provide, but others found less charitable situations, essentially becoming indentured servants.
Whatever their adoption experience, in recent years many have found their way back to the reservation. Some have stayed and become enrolled tribal members.
Reclaiming that tribal identity can be a challenge. Adoptees don't have birth certificates in some cases, others have altered adoption documents, making it difficult to prove their family connections.
Sandy Whitehawk says most are following a simple urge to understand who they are.
"We're not about bashing white parents. We're not about bashing good foster parents," says Whitehawk. "It's about bringing out hard times that we may need to talk about, but more than anything it's about healing and learning how to be in balance and understanding who we are."
Reconnecting with family and culture might not be as easy as a trip to the reservation. White Earth elder Joe Bush gets calls every week from adoptees trying to find their birth family. They call him because he carries generations of family history in his head.
He knows from experience that coming home is the first step down a long path.
"There's going to be a lot of fear, a lot of resentment and a lot of joy. It's going to be hard for some of them, but we're going to welcome these adoptees that went out, adopt them back home, says Bush. "Coming back home. Nigiiwe, I'm going home."
White Earth officials don't know how many people to expect at the welcome home gathering, but they're hopeful the formal recognition of a sad chapter in their history will be a model for other American Indian tribes across the country.