|October 4, 2012
President’s lecture series spotlights transracial adoption on October 19
By Lailani Upham
Susan Harness, cultural anthropologist and associate researcher at Colorado State University’s Tri-Ethnic Center for Prevention Research will explain issues of ethnic belonging, social hierarchy, and the impact on adult Native American transracial adoptees – like herself – who were adopted by non-Native families during the 1950s – 1960s. (Courtesy photo)
PABLO — Transracial adoption in Indian Country has been proven a direct assault on Indigenous cultures, according to cultural anthropologist researcher and Confederated Salish Kootenai tribal member Susan Harness.
Harness’ research isn’t the typical research process – it comes first hand.
Harness authored a book, “Mixing Cultural Identities Through Transracial Adoption: Outcomes of the Indian Adoption Project (1958-1967), which was released in 2009.
The book was not plotted but simply was an outcome of completing her thesis for a master’s degree at Colorado State University in Cultural Anthropology.
Her dissertation had caught the attention of Edwin Mellen Press and it went into print.
Salish Kootenai College welcomes Harness on Friday, October 19 from 12 pm to 1pm as the first guest speaker of the academic year at the President’s Lecture Series to enlighten the community, students and faculty on the effects the Indian transracial adoption era had on Native children.
During those years it was a societal idea to “save” the Native child from the perils of the reservation, and re-educate them in the dominant culture.
The American Indian transracial adoption was deemed a success. In reality to the Native children – it was the most tragically successful assimilation policy to date, according to Harness.
Harness said she believes the “success” opened up a floodgate to international adoptions to Germany and England as well.
During the American Indian transracial adoption era in the 1950s and 1960s, the Indian Adoption project was launched. It was a handshake agreement between the Bureau of Indian Affairs and the Child Welfare League of America to “save” children – and keeping the children within the tribal communities was not in the plan.
By 1972, over 30 percent of Native children were placed in non-Indian homes.
“The Indian adoption was not a result of character flaws and bad genes. Policy makers made it sound as if Indians could not take care of their children.”
Harness’ research led to studying adult American Indian transracial adoptees and found countless issues surrounding their adoption.
“In my research, during the interviews, individuals would open up after they found out I was an adoptee,” Harness stated.
Harness says, when viewed through the theoretical lenses of ethnic belonging, social hierarchies and capitals, and social memory, the child stands the most to lose. They are isolated from both cultures and lacking important characteristics that assures acknowledged membership in either culture.
Harness stated in an earlier article in the Char-Koosta News regarding the saying that Native people walk in two worlds – it is not the case with Indian adoptees. “We walk in no world.”
During her research she found that to ensure the child maintains a strong identity and ties to the tribe, specific steps must be taken by members of the Native community.
The research began to shed light on what it means to be an Indian living in a white world. Harness studied the challenges adoptees face when they try to return home after being raised in a white world.
She found out many tried to “return home” to their Native communities and found no space or home to come to and feel a part of.
In her personal journey to return to the Flathead Reservation in 1993, her story was a bit more fortunate than others. She met her biological family and they were welcoming and made her feel at home. However, the acceptance didn’t remove her feeling of mixed identity she carried throughout her life, she recalled.
“I grew up in Montana and was adopted out at two-years old and we (adoptees) didn’t talk about it (adoption).”
Harness said she noticed in the town of Great Falls where she lived, there were other children like her living with non-Native families and it was forbidden to ask questions or speak of their situations.
It took years for Harness to face truths of who she really was.
It wasn’t until well into her adult years she faced the deeper understanding of it all.
Harness says, there should be steps placed within tribes to assure a child remains connected to their tribal identity.
“Tribes can’t just let a child go. There should be a person accounted as liaison for the child,” Harness stated.
Long discussions need to be conducted on whether the family the child is being adopted to is prejudice and the adoption should remain open, she adds.
Harness’ research takes a strong look at colonization of Native peoples and the historic placement in U.S. social hierarchy during this little-known chapter of involuntary adoption in America.
Harness is the field director for the Tri-Ethnic Center for Prevention Research at Colorado State University. She continues her research on issues of American Indian transracial adoption. She is also researching on outcomes of historic trauma.
The “American Indian Transracial Adoption, An Assault on Indigenous Cultures” SKC President Lecture Series lecture by Susan Harness will be held at the Salish Kootenai College Arlee/Charlo Theatre from noon to 1pm.
It is a free event open to the public. Light refreshments will be served. Please bring your own beverage.