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“A life filled with scars,” the lasting legacy of the Indian Adoption Program

Obviously, I haven’t been blogging much as of late (or at least anywhere near as much as I would have liked to, or have material for.)

Hopefully, I’ll have some new posts up within the week.

For the moment, though, I’m going to backtrack just a bit and point readers towards an article in Indian Country Today (ICT) that was published back in mid-March,  A life filled with scars.

I’ve written before about First Nations children being placed with white adopters (particularly in the Canadian context, see Adoption as a tool of cultural genocide, the “child grabs” Canadian First Nations peoples have endured.)

On the American side of the border, we had the federal Indian Adoption Program (IAP) that lasted from 1958 until 1967. Hundreds of children were passed through it.

The ICT article focuses upon the experience of Susan Harness, an American Indian/First Nations adoptee placed into a white family by way of the IAP.

A member of the Confederated Salish Kootenai Tribes from western Montana, Harness was adopted by white parents, Eleanor and Jed Devan, at the age of 18 months. Harness recalls growing up in a home where she was wanted and regarded by her father as a kind of sociological experiment. She had all she needed but sensed that she was not the same as her peers, Harness said.

“Because of my father’s work, I’ve lived in some of the most beautiful places on the planet. I received a wonderful education that included music lessons and dance lessons.”

Her life’s experiences were channeled into a thesis work and later a book, “Mixing Cultural Identities Through Transracial Adoption.” Her life has been the aftermath of a decade-long adoption experiment when American Indian children were placed in homes outside of their race. The process, coined as “transracial adoption,” was an official program funded by federal money through the BIA and the U.S. Children’s Bureau, the federal adoption agency.

Later, the Indian Child Welfare Act of 1978 sprouted from the briars of the adoption project. The gateway legislation emphasized Native families as having federally protected rights, Indian family advocates said. Shannon Smith, director of the Indian Child Welfare Act Law Center in Minneapolis, Minn., said the fallout from the Indian Adoption Project left a legacy of broken families and often, broken lives.

“Certainly there were successful adoptions. The core of the issue was that somehow the old saying was true: To save them was to take the Indianness from them.”

Harness’ life was not the typical outcome of the Indian Adoption Project. Other Indian children who were also part of the socio-political program experienced depression, anger and failure. Skewed sense of identity also dogged adoptees while more visible results showed in other adoptees’ lives, like mental health deficits and substance abuse issues.

The article goes on to speak clearly to how even in Harness’s case, (considered far more “successful” by some than most of the IAP kids) the lasting effects of identity dismemberment remain with both the adoptees themselves, and in turn, their children on down the line, a feeling of never fully belonging in either world.

2 Responses to ““A life filled with scars,” the lasting legacy of the Indian Adoption Program”

  1. Robin Says:

    The arrogance of the white man, then and now, never ceases to amaze and appall me.

  2. Amanda Says:

    This issue is close to my heart and I cannot believe the way that the people of the First Nations have been treated.

    My adoptive great-great-grandfather and his father were forced to be students at the Carlisle Indian Industrial School (a method of forced assimilation and acculteration similar to what the IAP was attempting to accomplish). The “success” of their school training has made an obvious pattern of disenfranchisement in our family. 5 generations later, I am a first generation college student AND college graduate. My adoptive mother was a first generation high school graduate.

    Adoption today is not much different. It’s still trying to punish the poor for being poor and women for being women.

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