Manitoba Repatriation Program Connects First Nations Adoptees with Their Heritage
from Summer 2001 Adoptalk
by Diane Riggs
I sit and cry, but nobody comes. I reach out to hold, but there's no one to hold. I yell, I scream, but nobody's listening. I fight, I am angry, but I struggle to go on. I walk through life, walking in other people's shadows. I try not to be seen; to be seen is to be judged, to be judged brings pain. The pain is real, but I'm not quite sure why. You see I'm Indian, but I've been raised white! Adopted at the age of two, condemned to living between two worlds. Growing up considered to be a "savage" by one world and by the other world an "apple." The lost generation, lost between two worlds, accepted only so far into both, but why? Why have I been placed in this situation, why was I sentenced to this way of life? Who am I? And how can I get back to where ever I came from?
Conrad William Prince, repatriated in 2000
Within the context of wartime history, repatriation refers to soldiers returning home from foreign wars. In a sense, the Southern Manitoba First Nations Repatriation Program (SMFNRP) also deals with displaced personschildren separated from families and communities through out-of-province and out-of-country adoptions who have spent their growing-up years in non-native homes fighting against racial bias and struggling to re-build a sense of identity.
How did thousands of First Nations* children travel so far from their birth families and culture? Judge Edwin Kimelman, in a 1982 report about native adoptions titled "No Quiet Place," equated the Children's Aide Society practice of placing large number" of native children with white foster and adoptive parents during the 1960s, 1970s, and early 1980salso known as the Sixties Scoop or just the Scoopwith "cultural genocide." Estimates suggest that, throughout Canada, more than 20,000 aboriginal children were permanently removed from their bands. Between 1950 and 1980. Approximately 3,500 Manitoba First Nations children were removed during the same period.
Removals seem to have been sparked by the same misguided imperialistic fervor that sent so many native children away from their families and into residential schools in the decades preceding the Scoop. The idea was to "help" native children better assimilate into white culture. Their darker skin, however, and others' racial bias kept native children from fitting into the white world. Generations of children who lost their families, language, and culture have lived with a conflicted sense of identitylooking too native to be white, and living too white to be native.
In February of 1992, the Southern Manitoba First Nations Child and Family Services agencies and First Nations Bands of Manitoba developed SMFNRP to reconnect some of these children, now adults, with their birth families and culture. The repatriation program is funded by the Department of Indian and Northern Affairs, and helps displaced Manitoba First Nations adoptees and former foster children reunite with their birth families, culture, and community.
Craig (not his real name) is one of the repatriation program's clients. Born in the early 1970s to an aboriginal family in Manitoba, Craig entered foster care when he was just a few months old. Like many other First Nations children, he was later adopted by a family in the United States.
Thousands of First Nations children were placed into adoptive homes in the U.S., often through private agencies in Alaska, California, Indiana, Massachusetts, Minnesota, and Pennsylvania. Adopting a native child was relatively easy for U.S. parents. After paying a registration fee, parents could take a native child home without going through any criminal checks or preparation classes. Unfortunately, parents did not receive much information about the children they adopted or any post-adoption support. Most were completely unprepared for acting out behaviors, learning difficulties, identity struggles, and other problems that emerged as the children grew older.
Compared to some native children, Craig was fortunate. His adoptive parents were kind and loving, and provided Craig with a good home. Craig knew his parents regarded him as their son, but he never felt that he truly belonged. His was the only brown face at school, and though he had white friends, Craig used to wonder what it would be like to have friends who looked like him. At times, kids would taunt him. "You're just a f___ing Indian," one might say. "Wagon burner!" another might yell in passing.
Craig’s adoptive parents knew little about their son's birth history and even less about his cultural heritage. They could love him, but could not offer the insight into his origins that Craig craved. Identity issues were a constant struggle. By the time he was a teenager, Craig started turning to alcohol and drugs to dull the pain and confusion.
Years later, while in a treatment center, Craig met a sympathetic counselor who understood Craig's need for connection. The counselor had a contact in Winnipeg, and was able to arrange for Craig to move to a Manitoba treatment center. After he was in Canada, Craig sought out the repatriation program and began to learn who he was.
Many adoptees come to the program after experiencing decades of loss, confusion, and sometimes trauma, so repatriation services must be inclusive, holistic, and thorough. For that reason, SMFNRP:
- conducts extensive birth family searches (to locate parents and extended relatives)
- offers adoptee and birth parent support groups
- provides individual counseling and long-term support
- refers adoptees to legal, medical, housing, financial, and spiritual resources
- educates adoptees and others about residential school and child welfare policies that caused so many native children to be placed away from their birth families
- advocates on adoptees' behalf to gain treaty reinstatement and access to subsequent entitlements (treaty status First Nations people are native people who have legal Indian statusas defined through the Indian Actand belong to a First Nations band that signed a treaty with the Crown)
- invites adoptees to learn about native language, ceremonies, elders, etc. from a cultural resource worker
- maintains a web site that offers post-adoption information and resources, as well as links to international post-adoption resources
- makes presentations to First Nations communities about issues that First Nations adoptees facesuch as identity and the loss of language and culture
- when possible, supplies information about each adoptee's family and native community to help the adoptee make informed decisions throughout the repatriation process
- actively seeks out First Nations adoptees who were born in Manitoba by placing ads in Canadian and U.S. newspapers, and encouraging web site visitors to spread the word that the province has not forgotten about and is looking for its lost children in Canada, the United States, and Europe.
By design and necessity, the program's birth family searches are painstakingly diligent. In Manitoba, adoption records are sealed unless both the adoptee and birth parent request contact, and the province will release only non-identifying information from adoption case files. Unfortunately, non-identifying information is not always accurate or complete. Some native women, reluctant to burden their children with the stigma of having an unwed aboriginal mother, did not record their native status or band name on the original birth certificate. In addition, some social workers inadvertently or intentionally failed to identify children with native ancestrylikely because non-aboriginal children were easier to place for adoption.
To get information about lost relatives, adoptees must register with Manitoba's post-adoption registry (the registry that serves all of the province's adoptees and birth relatives). From there, repatriation program workers can request non-identifying information about the adoptee's parents, attempt to learn if the adoptee is entitled to treaty status, and search for the birth mother. If the mother or another relative is located, local Child and Family Services workers compile a current family history for the adopteea record of where the parents and extended family are, what they do for a living, their health status, etc.
Before Craig learned anything about his birth family, program counselors helped to prepare him for possible outcomes. They discussed Craig's expectations, his goals, and how he would manage if a birth parent were dead, or were not emotionally or physically prepared for reunification. Preparationof the adoptee or former foster child and birth familyis a key focus of the program's reunion efforts, because the goal of the search is to reunify adoptees with birth family members who are well-prepared for the new relationship.
The program also helped Craig to get on his feet in a new city and country. With help, Craig found housing, health insurance, and even a job. He also started learning about his First Nations heritage; he had never known what a powwow was, what happened at a sweat lodge, or what it means to have treaty status. Now, as his program contact proudly says, Craig is "walking the red road" and considers Manitoba home.
On the whole, very few of the adoptees reunified with birth family members through the repatriation program take up residence in Manitoba. (The program currently serves 840 registered clientsincluding adoptees, birth parents, birth siblings, extended birth family members, and adoptive parentsand has facilitated 310 reunions.) Adoptive family and home ties remain strong, and moving to a different country or province is a big commitment. Reunions do, however, help to enhance adoptees' social, emotional, mental, and spiritual well-being, as well as that of their birth family and the First Nations community.
Manitoba First Nations, by managing the repatriation program and the province’s native child welfare services, gains the satisfaction of recovering part of a lost generation and working to prevent the loss of another. Repatriated First Nations adoptees gain back keys to their identity through knowledge of their origins, and a sense of their connection to other First Nations.
Both Craig and staff at the repatriation program stay in regular contact with his adoptive parents in the U.S. Craig's parents have been fully supportive of their son’s quest to find his history, and the Repatriation Program has afforded them a measure of peace. They understand that Craig needed to connect with his native heritage, and that he has finally come to a clearer sense of who he is and where he belongs. Like most parents whose children move far away, they miss Craig, but are happy to know that he is doing well in his new home. In the end, isn't that what most parents hope for?
This article came together with help from SMFNRP's Bruce Schacht, Eva Wilson-Fontaine, and Sally Tisiga. To learn more about the repatriation program, call 800-665-5762, write to firstname.lastname@example.org, or visit www.wrcfs.org/repat.