Editor’s note: This story was originally published on March 16, 2009; see the conclusion for author Mary Annette Pember’s current update and analysis.
I’m mad at you!” my son Danny said one morning. He was perched midway on the stairs from my bedroom to the living room where I sat on the sofa drinking coffee. “Why?” I ask.
His arms are crossed tightly across his chest, his lower lip extended. “You left me!” he said accusingly.
He had crawled into our bed sometime in the wee hours and laid snuggly between us, oblivious to my husband John’s early morning departure and eventually to mine until this minute.
Stomping down the stairs in his bare feet, he stands in the middle of the living room and gives me the full effect of his angry face. His lips are drawn back into a kind of snarl, revealing his teeth. I know better than to laugh at a 4 year old boy’s anger, so I open my arms wide and bow my head. He settles into my lap, curling his legs under himself and rests his head on my breast. “I like your boobs,” he says of my built-in kid pillows. I have to laugh gently to myself thinking, “This must be why men are so crazy about breast size.”
As we snuggle, he asks me a question I have long waited to hear. “I used to be in your tummy, Mom?”
“No son, first you lived in another lady’s tummy, then you came to be my son.”
“Ooooh, too scary,” he shudders, his questions over for the time being. And so it has begun. Maangozit, Loon’s Foot, is ready to begin the journey to know his birth.
Although Maangozit did not emerge from my body, his roots are as deeply embedded in my belly as those of my biological daughter, Rosa. Since his birth mother is a distant cousin of mine, the roots also have a physiological base. At 7 months, Danny came to our family far from the reservation through the Indian Child Welfare Act. The Indian Child Welfare Act was enacted to end the near-wholesale removal of American Indian children who entered state social services to non-Indian families. The goal of the act is to preserve and strengthen American Indian families and culture by re-establishing tribal authority over its children.
the Indian Child Welfare Act has taken a beating in the mainstream press lately. It is often portrayed as an obscure, frivolous law of ill-service to the many mixed race Indian children living off the reservation. Like many things in our world, Indian culture and families have changed. They no longer resemble (not that they ever did) the television fueled mainstream vision of Indian life. In fact, 60 percent of Native families are like ours, they live off the reservation.
My children and I are all members of the Red Cliff Band of Wisconsin Ojibwe. We live with my husband and their father, John, who is non-Indian, in suburban Cincinnati, Ohio. Rosa, 10, is also Baybaamiisaay, She Flies Around. We have never lived on the reservation nor has Danny’s birth mother. She and her family relocated to the Northwest several years ago.
There are few Indians here in the region and far fewer Ojibwe. All are transplants, like much of America, drawn to the city by jobs and other opportunities. Unlike our reservation cousins, or those who live in communities with large Indian populations, there is no Indian community here. There are no pow wows or other “doings” to attend where we might bond with other Indians.
Mostly we fly under the radar, just being plain old Indian in ways only other Indians can know. This “knowing” and bond to family and land (although perhaps far away) is at the very heart of what culture really means. It is not an overt lesson. It is sharing, as my mother did with me; that the earth and the very stones are alive, imbued, as we are, with spirits. It is passing on the many stories my mother told me as we lay on her bed, the way we pray, our home-style ceremonies and the foods we eat. It is an unquestioning knowledge and comfort with other Indian people. This we are taught and teach our children as we walk through each day.
We return often to Wisconsin for ceremony and family events, washing our faces in Gitchee Gumee with relief, refreshing our hearts, reconnecting with place. Maangozit and Baybaamisay know what it is to be Indian, not some silly romantic television version connected with wearing regalia, but a grounding, a comfort in their own skin.
The National Indian Child Welfare Association cites studies indicating that Indian children placed in non-Indian adoptive homes suffer a far greater risk of psychological damage and have a higher tendency to abuse drugs and alcohol. As with any child, it is impossible to predict if either of my children will face these challenges as they find their way through life. I have no illusions that I have all the answers. I know, however, that as an Anishinabe-ikwe, I can give my children something singular and unique, the shared experience of growing up Indian in this world.
We have sought to preserve Danny’s story that expresses itself in both his English and Ojibwe names. It is not a story without pain, but it is his. His birth mother, Bo, made her way to a hospital to give birth before leaving, a tremendous gift. He carries her surname as his middle name. His foster parents, Miriam and Rodney, cared for him during his first months of life and named him Danny. Finally, he came to us; my husband gave him his last name, Metz, like our daughter.
He is Daniel L. Metz. Since I am not completely sure how she would feel, I have omitted his birth mother’s last name.
At about age 3, an Ojibwe namer gave him his name, Maangozit, Loon’s Foot. Unknown to the namer, Danny was born with a severe foot deformity that was surgically corrected in his first year of life. It was a difficult surgery, followed by months of painful casting. Only a small scar and slight bend to his foot remain. Clearly, the naming vision acknowledged this important event in his life.
Although all birth parental rights have been terminated in the legal sense, in the Indian way, we preserve his connection to his birth family, sending pictures and news to his biological grandmother. We believe there is no “death” to the connection between him and his biological family, therefore we honor it. He is part of a great extended family. I so love that his names represent his story. They give his history a weight and acknowledgment that he is part of something; he is Anishinabe.
This is what culture means for our family. Ultimately, we all crave this connection that is so often without words. Although Indian peoples roots may have grown more intricate with time, they are not any less strong or worthy of preservation.
So, Maangozit is firmly imbedded in our family, sometimes much to the annoyance of his big sister. A few weeks after the final adoption hearing in tribal court, Rosa spoke to me of her frustration with Danny. We lay in bed during our traditional evening visit when she tells me things that need telling. “Danny just doesn’t understand that I don’t want him around sometimes, does he mom?” she sighed. After a few minutes of reflection, she said in resignation, “Well, I guess we can’t give him back now, can we? It’s a done deal.”
“Yes, baby girl,” I said. “It sure is a done deal.”
Although I wrote this story back in 2009, not a whole lot has changed in terms of how the mainstream world views the Indian Child Welfare Act.
In fact, work to undermine the Act has taken a more insidious turn in the form of the Goldwater Institute, a right wing think tank that is seeking to dismantle the law entirely.
In our little corner of the world, however, the Indian Child Welfare Act has and continues to enrich our family. Danny, who now prefers to be called Dan, still likes to rest his head on my breast but only if his friends aren’t around. His roots have grown deeper into my heart and I remain absolutely convinced that both he and the rest of my family are restored and empowered by our traditional Ojibwe ways. This past summer, I achieved one of my great personal goals of helping my children through our lodge ceremonies.
In my work, I spent a lot of time researching the negative impact of trauma on children’s physical and mental development as well as the importance of parental affection and unconditional love on their neurological health. I can rattle off data and studies that support these suppositions. But my belief in the healing power and spiritual nourishment of our traditional ways can’t be easily quantified in any Western scientific way. As an Anishinabe-kwe I simply know it as well as I know the feeling of my blood in my veins. In terms of how I raise my children, I don’t worry about the lack of data.
I don’t know what the future holds for them; certainly they’ll struggle as do all our fellow humans but they will know who they are and where to turn when that spiritual hunger emerges; they won’t have to be afraid to be Native.
Although mothering is the riskiest thing I’ve ever done in my life, I’ve found courage in knowing that I’ve kept my part of the parenting bargain as best I can. My children know that love, boundless and unconditional, exists and is a reasonable and worthy expectation for them and all of the world’s children. I believe that if we recognize and trust that this is so, we have a genuine shot at weweni, living a good life.
As the Indian Child Welfare Act comes under new and more aggressive attacks by well meaning non-Indians who know what is best for our children, we need our traditional ways more than ever.
As Native people struggle to find our way in this world, we need guide posts along the way to point us toward what Ojibwe call “the heart way.” The Indian Child Welfare Act can help us show a path for our children. They will struggle in ways that will pierce our hearts but our ways will provide lights along their journey that mean the difference between life and death.
Although Maangozit seldom asks about his birth mother, I know she is frequently on his mind. I answer his occasional questions as accurately as I can. Even though the hard truth of her life cuts my heart for him, I believe I owe him the dignity of the truth. He recently asked if we might try to find her. He is worried that she may die soon from her risky lifestyle. I see now that he understands the heart way, his courage and wisdom will help sustain him.
This story was originally published March 16, 2009 and has been updated.