|October 25, 2012
Susan Harness brings home the topic of transracial adoption of Native American children
By Lailani Upham
(L to R) Albert Plant, Harness’s uncle; Susan Harness; Vernon Fisher, youngest brother; Ronnie MacDonald, sister; and sister-in-law Karen Fisher take a moment for snap shot reunion photo opp. (Lailani Upham photo)
PABLO — The opening President’s Lecture Series at Salish Kootenai College had a real life effect on the message that almost it could not be linked to the word “lecture” but more like the word “journey.”
Susan Harness, cultural anthropologist and associate researcher at Colorado State University’s Tri-Ethnic Center for Prevention Research and Confederated Salish and Kootenai tribal member, covered the history of the American Indian assimilation process that essentially began in 1830 with the Indian Reorganization Act all the way to present day transracial adoptions in Indian country.
It was not book and head knowledge that the information flowed from the podium, but her own life journey as an adoptee that took her from her CSKT homeland into euro-America.
In her talk she revealed how the next step in history of the assault on native culture and existence were the Indian education motto set out by Captain Richard H. Pratt, “Kill the Indian, and save the man.”
Harness explained that in 1887, the federal government attempted to “Americanize” Natives through education.
By 1900, thousands of Native children were studying at almost 150 boarding schools around the United States; the most famous was the U.S. Training and Industrial School founded in 1879 at Carlisle Barracks, Pennsylvania. Boarding schools like Carlisle provided vocational training and sought to systematically strip away tribal culture, Harness explained.
“The boarding schools trained the children to become workers for other people, not leaders. They were not set up like schools on the east where children were sent away to become leaders and changers in their communities. They received top education, while the education system was designed for native children to work for someone else in society.”
The Termination and Relocation Act was implemented around the 1950s where native families were given an “opportunity” to move to a city and “start a new life.”
Harness smiles at one her greatest mentors, Evelyn Stevenson, former CSKT Tribal Attorney. Stevenson met Harness in 2005, and reassured her she was not alone. Stevenson guided her to other adoptees and brought a sense of connectedness where she received a clearer understanding of the process of the Indian adoptions. (Lailani Upham photo)
“The problem with that was the people weren’t educated to be middle class citizens – they were laborers.” The system was set to fail the Indian. “They would end up with no job and running out of money and no way to return home,” Harness stated. “At this point the people began to dull the pain through drugs and alcohol.”
The Indian Adoption Project began in the 1950s as well — another assault on Native people’s existence.
This is the point in history where Harness experienced first hand the assault on who she was. “I got tired of people telling me what I was or was not. It did not matter what I said,” she explained. The determination began in an academic setting of research that was driven by her heart and steered her back to where it all began – where she bega: the Flathead Reservation.
“We really are fractured. The government did a great job fracturing us,” she explained.
In order to find change in what has been done throughout history, dialogue needs to happen, but the conversations must require being brutally honest, said Harness. “It’s the only way we can have anything changed in the system.”
Former tribal attorney and tribal member Evelyn Stevenson and Harness informed CSKT Tribal Council on Thursday that a resolution was needed within the tribes to acknowledge and welcome home adoptees, and learn ways on finding the lost ones.
Harness’s journey of discovering who she was and where she came from came from the choice of her adoption mother. She had access to documents that helped lead her back to her people. When her adoption mother was asked if she wanted to sign her rights away, she told the authorities, “No, that’s not my right to sign away. If she wants to when she is 18 that is her right.”
With a slight pause, the audience applauded the choice her mother made.
Now it’s time for tribes to make that decree for their children, believes Harness, by knowing where a child is placed and that they are not forgotten.