Feeling trepidation and hope, Peggy Mandel dropped a letter in the mail to a woman she’d never met but who held the key to a secret piece of her past.
Adopted and raised in a loving middle-class Jewish family, Mandel didn’t know her own origin story. As a kid, she could remember people asking, “Are you sure you're Jewish? You're too tall to be Jewish.”
She wasn’t sure either but needed to find out.
After decades of searching, she’d come across a name — someone who might be a blood relative, someone who would lead her to a wrenching history of Native people in Minnesota she wasn’t supposed to find.
Mandel had been so scared she couldn’t write the letter. Her husband Joel wrote it. For weeks, there was silence. Then came a voicemail that changed lives across two families and three generations.
“I am pleasantly surprised. I'm shocked,” said the voice. “And I would like to connect with you.”
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‘You don’t want to learn those words’
Anita Fineday, Mandel’s half-sister, was the voice on the message that day in 2015. Fineday, who was working in Seattle at the time, didn’t know she had a half-sister until that point, but she did know the family story. It was a difficult one, spanning generations of trauma from loss of Indigenous culture and identity.
Peggy and Anita’s mother grew up on the White Earth Reservation in northern Minnesota but did not embrace the culture or language.
“My mom didn't tell people she was Native American or Indian, because she was ashamed,” said Fineday.
The sisters were both born in Louisville, Ky., where their mother worked as a nurse. Fineday recalled her mother saying she wanted to keep her “as far away from the reservation as possible.”
Fineday believes the shame is a result of government boarding schools, designed to achieve that very outcome. She recalled sitting with her grandmother as a young girl and repeating an Ojibwe word.
“And she said, ‘Oh no, my girl, you don't want to learn those words,’” said Fineday. “And she showed me her hands where she had scars on her knuckles. She said, ‘That's where the nuns hit me, when I spoke Ojibwe … speaking Ojibwe will only get you in trouble.’”
Boarding schools were only one method the federal government used to break apart Native American families and communities. In the mid-1900s, a program known as the Indian Adoption Project effectively removed thousands of Native children from their families and placed them with white families.
Fineday learned that family members at White Earth tried to adopt Peggy when she was a baby, but her mother rejected the offer. She did not want her children to grow up on the Minnesota reservation, and she was pressured by the stigma of being unmarried and pregnant.
Ironically, Fineday has spent much of her career as an attorney and a tribal judge, advocating for displaced Native American children.
“That was my life's work,” said the 67-year-old Fineday. “To make sure that Native children were not separated from their tribe, and that they knew where they came from, that they knew who their family was.”
‘We can’t tell you where she lives’
Mandel, who moved to the Twin Cities at age 11, started looking for her birth mother in the 1990s. However Kentucky adoption records were closed and no information was available.
About eight years ago she sought help from a staff member at the Children’s Home Society, a St. Paul adoption agency.
In early 2014, an agency staff member called. “She said, ‘We found her. She is alive and well. But we can't tell you where she lives. And she doesn't want anybody to know. She doesn't want to meet you,’” recalled Mandel.
Mandel hired a private investigator, who quickly found her birth mother living in Brainerd in central Minnesota. Mandel tried several times to contact her, but there was no response.
“I just wanted to say thank you to this person who could have made a very different choice on all levels,” Mandel said. “And I was really grateful.”
Further investigation soon found her half-sister Anita. They met for the first time in the summer of 2015. Anita confronted her mother about the long-held family secret. At the time she was angry that no one told her she had a sister. Anita characterized her relationship with her mother through much of her life as “distant.”
“I said, ‘Mom, guess who contacted me,’ and she immediately spilled the beans,” Fineday said.
“She didn't really want to talk about it.”
Eventually a meeting was arranged between Anita, Peggy and their mother.
“I had an elevator speech ready,” said Mandel. But when she stood in front of her birth mother, her composure collapsed.
“I sobbed from a place I don't think I've ever sobbed from before,” she recalled. “Like a floodgate opened. And through tears I just said, ‘Thank you for an incredible life. Thank you for what you gave me.’”
After the initial meeting, Peggy spent many hours listening to stories of family history told by her birth mother. Her adoptive mother and birth mother eventually met.
Eleanore Robertson, their mother, is 93 years old now and suffers from dementia, so MPR News chose not to interview her.
‘Where do I belong?’
That reunion marked the end of a search for identity, but the beginning of a journey to understand what it means, not only for Peggy Mandel, but for her daughters Margo and Aleeza, teenagers when they learned about their Ojibwe ancestors.
“At first it's such a huge shock, in a good way, but also in an overwhelming way. It's a new family, a new culture. What does this mean? How do I go about this respectfully?” said Aleeza. “Where do I belong? And who's going to accept me?”
Aleeza and Margo are each at a different place on the path to embracing and understanding their Ojibwe identity.
“She (Aleeza) has dark curly hair and darker skin and I'm blonde and taller,'' said Margo. “It's been a little hard for me to be able to kind of connect at a deeper level, because I don't really look like everybody else.”
Margo was never questioned about her heritage.
Aleeza had a somewhat different experience.
“People would look at me, and say, ‘What are you?’ They’d really say those words,” she recalled. “I would get Latina or Hispanic or Middle Eastern, and I was always like, why are people asking me that?”
Margo is studying Indigenous culture, and contemplating the parallels between her Jewish and Native history.
“White settlers, and colonizers did everything in their power to essentially exterminate this culture.” she said. “I think it's very interesting how there are similarities with that to Jewish culture as well. Both faced forms of extermination.”
Aleeza has taken a more experiential approach. She’s participated in traditional ceremonies, and is learning about culture and spirituality from Ojibwe elders.
And the trauma embedded in her history empowers her.
“That hard history was honestly enraging, and a huge motivational piece for me to continue to learn is the fact that we weren't supposed to be here,” she said. “So I transcend that anger into motivation to continue to learn because I know it's something that they wouldn't have wanted me to know.”
At times, she’s found acceptance brings its own struggles.
“I was given my first eagle feather by a member of our community, and that was really overwhelming for me, because I didn't feel qualified,” she said. “Because that's a very sacred thing. And it's a very big thing to have and to honor.”
Among the people she turned to for guidance was her aunt Anita.
For her part, Fineday has let go of the anger she felt towards her mother for keeping a sibling secret for 50 years.
“I’m just focusing on building a relationship, not only do I have a sister, I have a brother-in-law, and I have two fabulous nieces,” she said.
Peggy Mandel is still trying to make sense of her new identity, learning as much as she can while being respectful of what she doesn’t know.
She wants her adoption story to give hope to others.
“It's astounding to me how open the heart can be when you're willing and ready, and even scared. And I was scared. But I went ahead and did it anyway,” she said.
Peggy and Anita attended an annual powwow at the Minneapolis American Indian Center held for adopted Native Americans.
“At the very end of this beautiful ceremony, we all hugged each other. We didn't know each other from Adam,” said Peggy. “But what it felt like is, hey, guess what, we all matter. It doesn't matter where we came from.”
Margaret Poethig provided an audio recording used in this story.