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‘Native American Transracial Adoptees Tell Their Stories’

While the widespread issue of Native American transracial adoptions isn’t a new issue to Indian country, the published non-fiction book “Native American Transracial Adoptees Tell Their Stories” is not only a valuable compilation of adoption stores, but a fascinating read as well.

Rita J. Simon and Sarah Hernandez interviewed 20 American Indian adoptees, in person or through e-mail or phone when necessary. The book’s interviews section provides verbatim transcripts of each of those interviews – unabridged and unedited. Despite its Q & A format, the text reads like a well written novel, catching the reader’s interest from the start and slowly revealing a storyline as the interviewee reveals more and more about their personal experience with transracial adoption.

The interviewees include 13 females and seven males. Remarkably, the individuals have stories that differ so vastly from one another that there is no hint of repetition or ensuing boredom. Each interview contains detailed accounts; whether the reader’s interest is in American Indians, adoptions, transracial issues, cultural identity, or American culture, there’s a great deal to be learned from these pages.

The interviewers asked the adoptees many of the same questions about their lives, including how they felt growing up as American Indian in a non-Native family, what their relationship is now with their adoptive parents and biological parents, and what their personal view is on transracial adoptions and the Indian Child Welfare Act.

Some of the adoptees reported having a great upbringing, in spite of their transracial adoption.

“If all the other avenues have been sought out, I don’t think it’s a negative thing for white families to adopt Indian children because I don’t think – I wouldn’t label my experience as negative,” said Denise Engstrom, a Tuscorora Native who was adopted by a white family in upstate New York. “I think there are some things I may have missed out on or that could have been done differently, but that doesn’t mean that I wasn’t raised in a good way.”

Engstrom’s support of transracial adoptions is not shared by the majority of those interviewed for the book. Most said that Natives should definitely be kept with other Native families and each gave their own unique reasons for their opinion. Some of the adoptees faced ridicule in their all-white school, some were teased by their own siblings. Most felt they had no cultural identity.

“Personally it’s been rough,” said Andrea, one of the adoptees who didn’t want to be fully identified. “It is not easy growing up in an all-white community at all and not being able to be proud of your heritage and tell people about it openly. Then you’ve always got to wait for the little remarks and stuff like that.”

As adults, many of the adoptees sought out either their birth parents or their tribe. In some cases the Native community embraced the adoptee, other times the adoptee was unable to enroll in their tribe because they couldn’t find their birth parents. In Veronica Rose Dahmen’s case, she was told she was entitled to a $20,000 retroactive per capita payment, but was later informed that there had been an error, based on her enrollment date.

Dahmen’s interview stands apart from the rest for a few reasons. She gives thoughtful and articulate responses to each question and becomes an interesting subject for the reader to think about. As an adult, Dahmen was reunited with members of her birth family and attended her first pow wow with them. While she viewed her life and adoption positively, the reader can’t help but notice her existing lack of identification with her Native roots, despite her new knowledge of where she came from.

“I definitely look in the mirror differently now, because all my life, I – being raised in a white world, I looked in the mirror and saw a white child,” she said. “My opinion is that they (Natives) are a culture that is very beautiful and everyone should know something about the Native American culture.”

Without attempting to draw any of their own conclusions, Simon and Hernandez offer information about the adoptees that make the reader more aware of trends and statistics. In the book’s first section, “History and Analysis,” an abundance of background information is given on the history of American Indian adoptions and the evolution of its position in the United States. While the overhead theme of the book obviously asks: “Should Natives be adopted by non-Native families,” the answer to it is clearly not black and white? Despite the implementation of the Indian Child Welfare Act, and widespread education on the effects of transracial adoptions, the reader will have to decide what their opinion is. The adoptees’ stories are both persuasive and thought-provoking, and fascinating and absorbing, but the diversity in the stories alone make it clear the issue is one that will be argued over for years to come.

Although the topic of transracial adoption is complex, readers who’d rather not take a position shouldn’t shy away from reading the interviews. The stories told are too original to overlook.

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