Calonna Carlisle’s bright blue bedroom in the Twin Cities suburb of Lakeville is draped in gymnastics medals and pageant sashes, including one from the time she was in the Miss Black Minnesota competition. On display is a porcelain Native American doll from a trip to South Dakota. At her high school graduation this spring, she wore her black honor society sash and tucked an eagle feather under her robe — a symbol of strength and power.
Carlisle’s mother is Native American and her late father was black. She has spent her life celebrating all of her heritage.
But as she heads into college, there’s a problem: She can’t get the government to acknowledge both parts of her identity.
Now 18, Carlisle was placed into the foster care system as an infant and adopted when she was a child, but one box checked on her foster care and adoptive records identifies her as African-American. There’s no mention of her Native roots, meaning the state doesn’t legally recognize her status.
She’s spent the last two years ping-ponging between county and state officials to add her Native American heritage to her records, to no avail.
“I’m not asking for a million dollars, and I’m not asking for anyone else’s identity,” she said. “I just want mine.”
‘Pushed left and right’
The family first realized there was an issue when Carlisle was heading into high school and applying for federal Native American education programs.
It was the first time they needed documentation to prove she was Native American. The Minnesota Department of Human Services told them no such documents existed.
Her adoption records not only listed her race as African-American, they also stated specifically that she was not Native American. Sarah Carlson, her adoptive mother, was stunned. She had no idea they were incorrect.
Carlson was sent to Ramsey County, where the girl was first placed into foster care, to figure out what had happened. She provided the county documentation from child services at the time of adoption, including a family tree showing Carlisle’s biological mother and grandparents, all Native American and enrolled members of the Lower Sioux Community.
Ramsey County didn’t dispute the error. They sent Carlson a letter in 2017, provided to MPR News by the family, noting her adoptive daughter’s race was incorrect and should be listed as African-American and Native American in the state’s Social Service Information System. “A copy of this letter will be placed in Calonna’s file,” the letter read.
But the county never added the letter or corrected her files, Carlson said. Allison Winters, a spokesperson for the county, said privacy laws prevent them from discussing specific cases, but in general, if an adoptive parent notifies them that there’s an error on their child’s information, the county conducts an investigation.
“If we determine any error has been found, we correct the data in our county and state record system,” she said.
The family contacted the Department of Human Services to ask for help adding the letter to her file. The situation was urgent: Carlisle was accepted into Hamline University in St. Paul and needed her information corrected to apply for financial aid.
But the department said the county wouldn’t provide the letter to them, so they couldn’t give it to Carlisle. The DHS then pointed the family to how to determine eligibility and enroll in a tribe, according to emails. The process would require them to go to court, hire a lawyer and pay fees, and Carlisle said she never asked about enrollment.
“I’m still being pushed left and right. One person is saying they’re handling it and another person is saying I now need to go to court to get my documents,” Carlisle said. “But how do you go to court to prove you're Native American if nothing in your records says you’re Native American?”
The Department of Human Services did not make any officials available for comment. In a written statement, the department said it couldn’t talk about specific cases due to data privacy laws but noted the state’s role is administrative, supervising all 87 counties and tribes in their locally administered child welfare programs.
At the heart of the issue is a complicated and secretive system set up for adoption records, said Greg Luce, attorney and founder of the Adoptee Rights Law Center in Minnesota.
“You can have a lot of sloppiness in the creation of the paperwork and a lot of ignorance of what you need to have documented,” he said. It gets even more complicated if the child is Native American, which requires more stringent reporting under the Indian Child Welfare Act. The county could be violating the federal policy by not listing her race.
“It could be ignorance, neglect or a mistake, or it could be purposeful to avoid all the federal requirements of [Indian Child Welfare Act],” Luce said.
Under state law, at the time of adoption, a new birth certificate is created listing the adoptive parents. The original birth record is replaced and locked down as confidential, including any correspondence about the certificate. An adoptee can only petition the court to get their original birth certificate after they turn 19.
“It takes months to get acknowledgement from the Department of Human Services that you were actually adopted,” said Luce, who was adopted, too. “You begin to internalize that secrecy and it becomes a stigmatizing aspect of your identity. You are made to feel like you’re asking for something that you really should not be entitled to have, and that has to do with your ancestry, it could be where you were born, it could be to whom you were born.”
Still in limbo
Carlisle’s 12-year-old dog, Pluto, follows her everywhere as she moves around her house. She got him as a companion shortly after she was adopted, and he’s the reason she plans to major in biology at Hamline University and eventually go into a veterinary program.
“He’s always been there for me when I needed him,” she said.
Carlisle ended up in the foster care system when she was six weeks old because her parents were unable to care for her. Carlson, the aunt of Carlisle's biological father, took her in and officially adopted her when she was 4.
“I was alone and she came,” Carlson said. “She has been a total blessing since she came and a lot of fun. I would do it over a million times.”
But Carlisle’s biological father died in a car accident. She knows her mother and other biological siblings, but they’re not in close contact. Biological relatives recently helped her meet her biological Native American grandmother.
“My great, great, great, great, great grandmother was a princess,” Carslile said excitedly, talking about a daughter of a tribal chief.
Complications aside, she’s grateful for her full and active life with her adoptive mother. She plays multiple instruments and sings at her church. That’s between practice for gymnastics and track, which she’s continuing into college. She’s advanced in French for her age and plans to visit Paris one day, pointing to a decal of the Eiffel Tower she tacked on to her bedroom wall.
“Mom says a busy schedule keeps you out of trouble,” she said.
Her communications with the county and state over her identity have been keeping her busy, too. She’s now the point person emailing state officials about her records, and she’s offered to meet them at their offices to pick up any records they can provide.
The longer it’s gone on, the more frustrated she gets. She wants the state to investigate what happened with her case, but she hasn’t received a response. It’s not how Carlisle thought working with government would be.
“When I was in school, we had to take a government class and the teacher was always talking about how the government helps you.” Carlisle said. “This isn’t helping at all. It’s just confusing and it’s annoying and it just makes me angry. It’s kind of like high school drama, it doesn’t have to be there but it is.”