In hindsight it’s easy to see the signs that today was going to be a difficult day. For starters, instead of bringing his usual stuffed dog to breakfast, my son brought his buffalo. After I put the baby down for his morning nap I noticed some books were missing from the bookshelf. They were my Native American books. I found them on the end table where I guess my son had put them after thumbing through them. Then after doing a couple puzzles together (the usual- dinosaurs, jedis, Spiderman) he got down his big brother’s puzzle of the United States. I knew it would be tough (60 pieces for a 4 year-old is a bit of a stretch), but we sat down to do it together. As we assembled the puzzle Danny quietly asked, “Where the other Indian boys, Mommy?” I wasn’t sure how to respond, but over the course of finding the right spots for those 60 pieces he repeated the same question in different ways while I tried out different answers. Finally when we got to the South Dakota piece I said, “This is where the reservation is for the people in your tribe.” He said, “I from there?” I tried to explain how he was born in Nebraska, his birth family lives just 15 minutes from us, but his tribe is in South Dakota. That’s when he broke. My precious son who has been with me since he was just a few days old sobbed, “I can’t find my family. I can’t find my family.”
Adoption is hard.
Adoption is a beautiful Plan B when something goes wrong. Children are supposed to be raised by parents who are ready to love and nurture them. That isn’t always the way life works. I have NO doubts about the rightness of Danny’s presence in our life. He was meant to be with us. I have so much love and respect for his birth family, but it would not have been a good environment for him to be raised in, especially with some of his unique issues. And this isn’t just my opinion. This was the finding of the State of Nebraska who had a representative of his tribe look into the situation to decide what was in his best interest. Everybody agreed, including his birth mother who has graciously been a supporter of his life with us. But that doesn’t mean this journey is easy.
In generations past families pretended the adoption never happened. Transracial adoption doesn’t really allow for that level of denial. So we do our best to speak positively of our child’s birth culture in ways they can understand. For Danny I know that has created some tension. What four year-old boy wouldn’t like to live where they sleep out under the stars, eat buffalo they shot themselves, ride horses, wear beautiful beads and feathers (or just about nothing at all), and spend each day with people who look just like you? It’s hard to balance the elements of beauty and history in the Native American culture with what reservation life looks like today.
You don’t have to be much of a researcher to find out poverty is high on the reservation. Alcoholism and drug abuse are rampant. A nonprofit that does work on the reservation of my son’s tribe quotes statistics that say the suicide rate there is the highest in the world. Did you get that? In the world. Infant mortality, school-drop out, rape- all of the percentages are drastically higher than what you’d find outside of the reservation. The problems are heartbreaking and the solutions are complex. We randomly met a woman from Danny’s tribe at the State Fair a couple years ago. She told us to think about adopting Danny just like we think about adopting our son from Liberia- this is a child rescued from a third-world environment. While I find that a really harsh way of looking at it, I also know I have the benefit of thinking that because I haven’t lived it.
Native American kids in foster care come under the Indian Child Welfare Act. I’m not a lawyer, but I know the practical application is that it is one step harder to adopt a Native American child if you are a white family. The government works harder to keep them in culturally consistent placements. This means some children who are legally free for adoption will wait for a family simply because there isn’t a Native family available to take them. It means whatever decisions are made by your state have to be supported by the child’s tribe. We knew up until the moment Danny was adopted it would be possible for his tribe to decide they wanted jurisdiction over what happened to him (and in some situations even after the adoption if the tribe isn’t properly included in the proceedings). It was scary, but I also understand the necessity of allowing the tribe to have a say.
As part of our adoption process we had to file a cultural plan with the state. We had to explain what we knew about our child’s birth culture and how we planned to keep him connected to it. As part of that plan we had to research Split Feather Syndrome. For some Native American kids who are raised in white homes, this cultural divide becomes a source of great trauma. This is why we educate our kids, we talk to them about where they come from instead of making it feel like a shameful thing. I know it may be hard for Danny as he grows up outside of his birth culture, but I also know he has a better chance at success by being raised by two loving parents who are focused on helping him heal. We will give him the best start we can and then the choices are up to him.
So what did we do today? We looked through his Indian books together. We watched youtube clips of buffalo hunts. He told me he wants some “shoes with beads”. I held him and told him I’m so glad he’s my son and I’m so glad he’s Sioux. I told him he can talk to me about this any time he wants to and we’ll keep looking for new books and movies we can watch together so he can learn more about it.
Maybe if we didn’t talk about these things he wouldn’t have cried today. But maybe he would have felt all the same sadness feelings without words to describe them and without knowing Mommy wanted to listen. I can’t say we’ve got this all figured out, but I know my son knows he’s loved and valued for who he is- spiritually, physically, genetically, ethnically.
Adoption is hard. But it’s still the right thing to do.