Four adopted women seek out their Native American roots
A Lakota Girl Lost
Under her mother’s frozen body, they found her. A baby girl in a buckskin cap, wrapped tightly in a shawl. She was breathing. Four days earlier, her mother—a Lakota woman on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in South Dakota—had been shot by federal soldiers. Through a three-day blizzard, her mother’s still body had sheltered her. Now a rescue party was pulling her out into the cold air.
Around one hundred men and two hundred women and children were slaughtered at the Wounded Knee Massacre, on December 29, 1890. Accounts differ about how the incident started, but it seems clear that it was rooted in misunderstanding and distrust. At one tense moment, a gun went off, and the prairie exploded in smoke and blood.
“When the firing began,” the chief of the Oglala Lakota, American Horse, later told the U.S. commissioner of Indian affairs, “of course the people who were standing immediately around the young man who fired the first shot were killed right together, and then they turned their guns, Hotchkill guns, etc., upon the women who were in the lodges standing there under a flag of truce, and of course as soon as they were fired upon they fled.”
"The women and children of course were strewn all along the circular village until they were dispatched. Right near the flag of truce a mother was shot down with her infant; the child not knowing that its mother was dead was still nursing, and that especially was a very sad sight. The women as they were fleeing with their babes were killed together, shot right through."
The baby who survived became known as Zintkala Nuni, or, in Lakota, "Lost Bird."
Lost Bird’s story would take a curious turn: a few days after the massacre, General Leonard Wright Colby, of the Nebraska National Guard, visited the site and took an interest in the orphaned girl. General Colby heard the story of the infant that had been recovered from the site of the massacre and sought to adopt Zintkala. After making the arrangements (which apparently involved representing himself as one-quarter Seneca to Zintkala Nuni’s Lakota guardians), he returned to Nebraska with his new daughter.
Zintkala—whom Colby renamed Marguerite—was sheltered by her parents and often shunned by the white community in which she was raised. She tried more than once to seek out her Native heritage in South Dakota, but as someone who didn’t speak Lakota and wasn’t familiar with traditional ways, she wasn’t always welcomed. Ultimately, she suffered from depression and a nervous breakdown and died at the age of 30 in Hanford, California. In 1991, thanks in part to publicity generated by Renée Sansom Flood’s book Lost Bird of Wounded Knee: Spirit of the Lakota, Zintkala’s remains were brought back to South Dakota and buried near the mass grave of the victims of Wounded Knee.
The story of Lost Bird has been taken up as a symbol of the U.S. policies and practices that have separated Native American children from their families for more than one hundred years, and have thus begun to erase their culture.
“A great general has said that the only good Indian is a dead one,” said Richard H. Pratt, the founder of an influential Indian boarding school, in 1892. “I agree with the sentiment, but only in this: that all the Indian there is in the race should be dead. Kill the Indian in him, and save the man.”
Pratt’s school in Carlisle, Pennsylvania, was one of dozens of American Indian boarding schools that opened in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Tens of thousands of Native children and young adults left their homes, some taken by force, to attend these schools, where they were dressed in Anglo-American clothing, given new names, and forbidden to speak their own languages, even among themselves.
In 1958, the Child Welfare League of America developed the Indian Adoption Project, which placed Native American children in white families in what was promoted at the time as an enlightened effort to aid assimilation. Over the next nine years, hundreds of Native children were placed with non-Native families, mostly throughout the eastern U.S. and the Midwest. By November 1978, when the Indian Child Welfare Act was enacted and put a stop to this exodus, more than a quarter of Native children had been removed from their families.
Some Native children who were adopted grew up in loving homes; others suffered enormous hardships. Many, like Zintkala, shared a powerful desire to reconnect with the culture that they had lost.
The following four women felt this desire and found ways to act on it. These are their stories in their own words and pictures.
Susan Fedorko was in elementary school when she discovered the first clue: a strange birth certificate left behind on the dining-room table. It was for a girl her age—born in 1962—with the unfamiliar name of Veronica Dahmen. “I said, who is this baby Veronica?” recalls Susan. “I had no clue that it was me.”
She had always felt stable and loved in her upper-middle-class family in South Minneapolis. Her parents, Lloyd and Virginia Smith, sent her to private school and raised her Catholic. But like many adopted Native American children, Susan felt different from her classmates. Her skin was darker, and she had a vague sense that she didn’t belong.
Not long after she found the birth certificate, she overheard her mother talking to her sister and using the word “adoption.” What were they talking about? Susan asked. That’s when her mother told her for the first time that she had been adopted.
She waited years before pursuing the subject further, out of concern for her adoptive parents’ feelings. It wasn’t until she turned 18 and moved out of her childhood home that she began to search for her biological parents. She wrote to the adoption agency that had placed her with the Smiths, but Minnesota law kept adoption records sealed. As she got older, she wrote again and again—approximately once a year over more than 20 years.
Susan was 40 years old when she received a phone call from Sarah Knestrick. Sarah, it turned out, was Susan’s half-sister—her biological mother’s second daughter. It had taken Sarah only a day and a half to find Susan; her mother had never hidden from her children the fact that she had given up a baby girl for adoption, and Sarah had stumbled across one of Susan’s many postings on an adoption-search website.
Here’s what Susan learned about her birth parents: Catherine Helen Dahmen was from the Chippewa Grand Portage tribe, Thomas Conklin from the White Earth Ojibwe Nation, both of Minnesota. Sadly, by the time Susan heard from Sarah, her parents had already passed away—her father a year earlier and her mother four years before that. At the time of her death, her mother was living only about 40 miles away from Susan’s home.
Catherine—or Cathee, as she was called—had never wanted to give up her first child. But she was only 16 years old when she gave birth to Susan, and one day when she was away at school, her mother packed up Susan (then Veronica) and gave her up for adoption. The Smiths adopted her a year later.
Her family history contained another surprise: her mother had been a prominent fashion model in the 1960s and ’70s. She had appeared on the cover of Vogue and Harper’s Bazaar, among many other magazines; in fact, these covers were the first photographs that Susan saw of her mother. It was strange to think that the woman she had been looking for all these years had lived in the public eye.
Today, Susan describes herself as “part of the family.” She is in regular contact with her mother’s siblings and other Native American relatives. Each summer she travels to the Chippewa tribe powwow in Grand Portage, Minnesota. “I have wonderful adoptive parents who gave me my aim in life, teaching me right and wrong,” says Susan. “My birth mother gave me my life and culture.”
When Trace DeMeyer was in the first grade, the only parents she had ever known were European immigrants who lived in Superior, Wisconsin. Her father, Everett, was a switchman for the Great Northern Railroad whose family emigrated from Belgium. The family of her mother, Edith, emigrated from Great Britain.
But Trace had a different background, as she found out that year, when her parents took her aside and told her that they had adopted her. They knew very little about her birth and heritage, though. Trace’s grandmother Rose—Everett’s mother—who had a special bond with Trace, encouraged her to seek out that information. “Find your people,” she said.
Trace was 12 years old when she had her first revelatory moment of belonging. She was with her parents at a popular annual lumberjack festival in Hayward, Wisconsin, when she spotted a Native American powwow nearby and drifted toward it. Watching the dancers in their distinctive dress, she was riveted. These were her people. “Hearing the drum, it just hit me,” says Trace. “It was like my heart opened up and the sky fell in.”
When she graduated college, Trace began the search for her heritage in earnest. At a courthouse in Northern Wisconsin she found the answers she sought. There, she sat and read her adoption file and started to learn her history. Her birth name was Laura Jean Thrall, and she was born in September 1956 in St. Paul, Minnesota. Her mother’s name, Helen, was in the file, but her father’s wasn’t. She sent letters to her mother, asking to talk with her, but her mother had no interest in doing so. Finally, on her birth mother’s 60th birthday, she wrote one last letter, simply asking for her birth father’s name. She received it in the mail soon after.
Her father, Earl, was happy to talk to her, and from him, she found more pieces of the puzzle. Helen was 22 years old when she had given birth to Trace (then Laura). Earl and Helen had been living together in Chicago, but they had broken up before Helen had had her baby, and Earl never even knew that she was pregnant. Earl confirmed what Trace had long suspected: that he and Helen—and Trace, too—were Native American.
Trace only met Earl once in person, when she was 38 years old. The second time she visited his part of Illinois was to attend his funeral. But she’s grateful that she now understands more of her own story, and the national story of Native American adoption. Today she feels connected to her Native American heritage and committed to advocating for other Native adoptees.
As early as Julie Missing can remember, she knew she was adopted. She never felt bad about it, perhaps because her brother and sister had been adopted, too. Julie grew up in the Denver suburbs, with dogs, cats, and space to play.
It took many years for Julie to become curious about her heritage, and longer still before an avenue appeared to explore it. In 2009, when Julie was 46, a block of previously sealed adoption records was opened in connection with a lawsuit. Julie's records were among them. In her file, she found her birth certificate, which named her mother and father. Her father, it turned out, had passed away in 2005. She tried to contact her mother, but her mother showed no interest in talking with her.
Julie learned that she was Native American in a roundabout way: one day in 2010, Julie stopped by her biological mother's house to drop off a letter. Her mother’s husband answered the door. As they were talking, a little girl of four or five came to stand in the doorway beside the man. Julie commented on the deep-brown complexion of the little girl, to which he replied, "She probably gets that from my wife," said the man. "She’s Native American".
Today, thanks in part to Facebook, Julie is in contact with aunts and cousins from her biological mother's family: members of the Nooksack tribe in northwest Washington State. This year, Julie traveled there to ring in the new year with her cousins.
She is grateful for her adoptive family but also delighted to have discovered her roots. “It’s a piece of my history and my culture,” says Julie, “and for a long time, I didn’t even know it was missing.”
Diane Tells His Name
Growing up in suburban Los Angeles, Diane Tells His Name always felt different from her friends, and especially from her blond-haired, fair-skinned younger sister. “I remember going through family albums,” says Diane. “I could see the familiarity between my sister and my parents, and my grandparents and my parents, but I couldn’t find my face.”
One day, when she was in her early thirties, Diane happened across an old picture of her mother taken one month before Diane was born. She didn’t look remotely pregnant. This was the first solid clue that her feelings of disconnection were founded.
In December of 1988, when she was 37 years old, Diane received a copy of her birth certificate and her adoption papers from the Oklahoma State Department of Health. The birth certificate listed her mother’s name, ethnicity, and place of birth: Isabell Helen Gapp; Indian; Pine Ridge, South Dakota. “I held it to my chest and just sobbed,” says Diane.
She wrote her birth mother a two-page letter, which turned into an emotional four-hour telephone conversation, and then a meeting in person.
Diane found out that her birth mother, Isabell, had been forcibly removed from her home at the age of seven and placed in an Indian boarding school. "She became a strong women but didn’t know how to be a mother," Diane says of her biological mother. So, when she became pregnant, she gave Diane up for adoption.
Diane and Isabell represented two generations deeply affected by U.S. policies toward Native American children. Both women had been separated from their culture for a time, and both had found their way back. With that in mind, Diane decided to adopt a Native American child herself. She and her husband had already taken in Native American foster children, but they wanted to adopt a Lakota child. At Isabell’s urging, Diane took her new daughter, Bonnie, to Pine Ridge to receive her Lakota name and to be officially inducted into the tribe.
Now a mother of five and a grandmother of 13, Diane tries to instill the next generations of her family with knowledge of and pride in their Native American heritage.
Written by: Danielle J. Powell, Joshua J. Friedman
Reported by: Cassandra Herrman
Edited by: Nikhil Swaminathan, Kristen Taylor, Carrie Lozano, Reem Akkad
Digital Production by: Danielle J. Powell
"A Lakota Girl Lost" chapter photographs all within the public domain and available via WikiMedia Commons.
"Susan Fedorko" chapter photographs provided courtesy of Susan Fedorko.
"Julie Missing" chapter photographs provided courtesy of Julie Missing.
"Trace DeMeyer" chapter photographs provided courtesy of Trace DeMeyer.
"Diane Tells His Name" chapter photographs and "a recent photograph of Zintkala's grave site" provided courtesy of Diane Tells His Name.
© Al Jazeera America, Fault Lines