Keeping the Pathways to Tradition Open
As an American Indian transracial adoptee, my cultural anthropology research examined outcomes of American Indian children who had been placed with White families in the decades prior to the Indian Child Welfare Act of 1978. Through a mixed methodology of word lists, unstructured interviews and a semi-structured telephone survey, I was able to capture concepts of stereotypes as well as the lived experienced within the hierarchy of colonization. Word lists were given to 45 people, divided into three groups of fifteen each: White, American Indian and American Indian transracial adoptees. The information I sought through unstructured extensive interviews, conducted with ten American Indian transracial adoptees, was the lived experience of being raised in the dominant society, but possessing different physical characteristics, histories and ethnic membership than the families they were raised in. During this interview, adoptees
were encouraged to share with me whatever information they felt it was important that I, as a researcher, know about their experience.
They talked about their families, the racism they may or may not have experienced, their isolation, and their pain. The vast majority also spoke of their attempt to return to their reservations and their families, where most felt unaccepted or marginalized in ways that were similar to their experiences in the dominant cultures. The findings revealed that, essentially, we were too white to be Indian and too Indian to be white; we fell in between the boundaries of both ethnicities, and therefore experienced isolation and shame, with little if any way to mitigate those feelings. The Indian Child Welfare Act was signed into law in 1978, as way to stop the destruction of American Indian families and communities, by ceasing the large scale removal of American Indian children (over 30%) from their families and placing them in white homes. As a result, non-Native families are in 5 th place to receive an American Indian child. However, recent court cases, such as Baby Veronica, have revealed the chasm that divides privilege from oppression, and the resulting bitter custody battles now rage in America’s courtrooms; the sparring point is the concept of the “best interests of the child.” Such contention places children in limbo, psychologically and culturally, creating a negative environment that colors their perspective of the world. These custody battles will most likely increase, because of the litigation currently under way by those opposed to ICWA. Therefore, it is imperative we imagine new ways of adoption that create a larger group of supportive members who will support the child in his or her traditions, identity, with love and respect. My portion of the panel discussion will be informed by my research, my writing and my interest in the Indian Child Welfare Act of 1978.
Adoption Practices In New Zealand Pre and Post Colonisation: An opportunity for reflection
Prior to European arrival to Aotearoa, Māori observed a common and well developed system of whāngai or ‘adoption’. Yet the underlying beliefs guiding Māori customary adoption practices – views about family, children, and kinship – and the beliefs and practices associated with legalised adoption in New Zealand, particularly closed stranger adoption, have very few, if any, shared commonalities. In fact, the idea of Māori adoption is a misnomer as whāngai placements and European adoptions have more irreconcilable differences than points in common. This paper will examine these differences drawing upon both Western epistemologies and histories and Māori-centered research practices and oral traditions.
In New Zealand, settler notions of family were based on English common law where women and children were the property, or chattels, of men. Before marriage, a female child, regardless of age, was the property of her father and upon marriage she became the property of her husband. In contrast, ownership of women and children was non-existent in Māori society prior to colonisation. Instead, kinship bonds necessitated social responsibilities tied to the notion of reciprocity within the context of the extended family. Māori understanding and use of the English term ‘family’, much like the Māori use of the English term ‘adoption’, was completely different from the British settler understanding where settler families were ideally, if not always effectually, independent single units headed by a man. It was this English, Christian-based, settler notion of ‘family’ which ultimately drove adoption legislation in New Zealand (and other coloniser settler nations). In Māori tradition the first adoption was that of Māui-tikitiki-a-Taranga. The oral histories regarding Māui clearly illustrate the values Māori associate with whāngai adoptions. Firstly, children are cared for by kin and it is the responsibility of the whāngai parents to love and educate an adopted child. Adopted children are told the circumstances of their birth and adoption and learn their genealogy. The adoptive parents support the child in developing a relationship with his or her birth parents. Knowledge of genealogy provides a child with a secure identity and, through knowledge of kin relationships, a place to belong. Further, the raising of a child is the responsibility of many relatives, and in turn, the child has a responsibility in adulthood to work to benefit the wider kin group. Moving forward, there is much to learn from Māori and other Indigenous Peoples ‘adoption’ practices. Is it time to bridge the gap between the Western institution of adoption and whāngai placements?
Collective Parenting: “In the best interests of the child”
Many parents wishing to adopt a child may not be aware that their subconscious feelings about creating a family may centre on the desire to ‘own’ a child to make their family complete. They may choose to adopt a child from a culture, country or situation where there is little ability to have contact with the biological parents. Or they may agree to be in an “open adoption” relationship with the biological parents, only to allow these crucial relationships to slip away, or to maintain only the most minimum contact, ultimately marginalising and undermining this crucial relationship. While, ongoing “open adoption” relationships between the child and birth and adoptive families are not always easy they are in the “best interests of the child.” It is a child’s fundamental human right to know their birth identity and culture. What then is the adoptive parents’ role in keeping these key relationships alive until the child is old enough to sustain them for themselves? There are many reasons why a biological parent may have their child adopted. Often this decision is based on being young and poor and living in a community that won’t, or can’t, support the parent if they keep the child. Many times, their decision is not based on a true choice.
It is argued that “open adoption” is a vast improvement on closed adoption and its secrecy. However, “open adoption” is also supported by an element of secrecy with the recreation of a new birth certificate, after the formal adoption has been approved by the Court. The new birth certificate identifies the adoptive parents as the “true” parents, as though the biological mother had never given birth and that the biological parents are no longer parents. Through this process, the child becomes part of a new family and the team of professionals that were so involved up to this stage have no further contact. However, this type of family has been artificially created and, as such, the child, biological and adoptive parents all have ongoing grief and needs. For children who are placed in families so different from their birth families, the grief and the needs are magnified yet are often not acknowledged. No cohesive support systems exist to “support the best interests of the child”. While there are many ways to care for non-biological children, adoption is the only legal way to make a new family, while totally replacing the original family.
This paper which is informed by my own doctoral research and personal experience of being an adoptive mother in an open, cross-cultural adoption relationship seeks to explore, and open up discussion around a number of questions: What does it say about our societies that through adoption we create new families by breaking the original family? Why can’t we provide support in a time of crisis for our most vulnerable members? Are there new ways to care for non-biological children in family settings?