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Adapting the Indian in the Child: The Settler Colonial Politics of Adopting Native American Children

April 4, 2016

by Joshua Whitehead

In June of 2015, Manitoba became the first province to apologize to survivors of Canada’s Sixties Scoop. For those unfamiliar, the Sixties Scoop refers to the removal of Indigenous children from their families, “scooping” them up, and placing them into foster homes with non-Indigenous families and/or residential/day schools. I also deploy the term Sixties Scoop with an awareness of its expansive and evolutionary nature, in that it branches beyond the sixties and moves well into the eighties; moreover, its remnants can be seen in Canada’s contemporary Child and Family Services (CFS). In light of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC), Manitoba’s apology was a first step towards reconciling with survivors. As the child of a Sixties Scoop survivor, I am interested in how adoption functions within the larger framework of North American settler colonial practices[1]. While there is quite a bit of research on the effects of adoption on adoptees and their parents, what I am interested in exploring for the purposes of this essay is the effects/affects of adoption from an intergenerational and intercommunal perspective. I ask: how does adoption of Indigenous children away from their communities and relations harm Indigeneity intergenerationally? How does the adoptive child fit into his/her/their community and moreover, how is the community kinship impinged through adoptive practices? I want to place my research findings and personal experiences in tandem with the recent film, Drunktown’s Finest, in an attempt to question how adoption of Indigenous children away from their communities impinges entire Indigenous communities as a tool of settler colonialism.

Settler practices of adopting Native American children began largely during the Cold War and followed the popularization of American Indian boarding schools, which themselves largely began at the turn of the century. Kenn Richard, the director of Native Child and Family Services in Toronto argues that, “British colonialism has a certain process and formula, and its been applied around the world with different populations, often [I]ndigenous populations…one of the ones you hear most about is obviously the residential schools…but child welfare to a large extend picked up where residential schools left off” (p. 299). In short, adopting Indigenous children is an adaptation of previous techniques of assimilation and colonization.

Laura Briggs, in her text, Somebody’s Children: The Politics of Transracial and Transnational Adoption, argues against Elizabeth Bartholet’s popular text, Nobody’s Children, which draws upon the “English common law’s name for a bastard child, filius nullius (nobody’s child, the child of no man)” (p. 17). Bartholet argues that domestic U.S. policy needs to limit the amount of time that children are in foster care and push for adoption as a result. Furthermore, she argues against kinship foster care, or placing the child within the extended family, by stating that extended families are far too often unfit guardians because they too are traumatized, in much the same fashion as the child. While I do not care to critique Bartholet, as Briggs brilliantly does so already in her text, I do want to draw attention to her use of the term filius nullius. It is here, I argue, where the specific intersections of settler adoption practices in regards to Indigenous populations are revealed. Filius nullius, or nobody’s child, intersects with the term, terra nullius, or nobody’s land in a way that inextricably links native land to the body. Thus, adopting the body is a means of adopting the land. And, moreover, acquiring Native babies became a means to acquiring land to secure settler colonialism and one’s own claim to their land. Thus, adoption of Native American children becomes a link in the settler colonial chain, one strongly akin to residential/boarding schools, the Indian Act, the Dawes Act, Bill C31, the Indian Relocation Act, the Indian Adoption Project, and many other formulations of national and tribal disenfranchisement.

To further extrapolate on these paradigms I draw upon Sydney Freeland’s 2014 film, Drunktown’s Finest. Freeland, a female Navajo director, released her film to critical acclaim at the Sundance Film Festival this year. The film is still unreleased on DVD and is continuing screenings in theaters throughout North America (it is available for digital purchase via iTunes in the United States). I argue that the film draws parallels between adoption of Native American children and the overall health of the Navajo community from where the adoptee is taken. Drunktown’s Finest tells the story of three characters: the hyper-masculine “problem child” Luther “Sickboy” Maryboy, a (nádleehé) Two-Spirit sex worker/aspiring model named Felixia, and Nizhoni Smiles, a transethnic adoptee taken in by a white Christian family. The film revolves around and concludes with the reunion of Nizhoni and her birth grandparents, Ruth and Harmon.

In Nizhoni’s introductory scene we see her writing in a dream journal. At this point in the film she is still unaware of her birth family and is called back to her Indigenous roots through dream. Nizhoni, when telling her father of her dreams is told, “Look, I wouldn’t put too much stock into that.” Nizhoni uses Youth Works placement as a means of travelling to the reservation. Nizhoni is given several jobs by Youth Works, one of which is Roadkill Cleanup where she is introduced to two older Navajo male characters: Copenhagen and Leroy Leroy. Nizhoni, while working with both Copenhagen and Leroy Leroy has her Nativeness questioned and disregarded. For their first clean up, Nizhoni, Copenhagen, and Leroy Leroy are called to a playground where an owl has died. Both Copenhagen and Leroy Leroy state that they must consult with their uncles in order to determine how to dispose of its body. Nizhoni, unaware of the cultural significance of the owl to Navajo culture notes, “I’m not afraid of a silly Navajo superstition” while scooping up the owl in a shovel and disposing of it in the trash bin. Afterwards, both men are upset by this and all three return to the car. In the truck we hear both men discussing her actions in Navajo. This leads to Leroy Leroy calls Nizhoni an “apple” and says that she is “red on the outside and white on the inside.” Afterwards, Copenhagen asks Nizhoni in English, “You’re not from here, are you?” I draw us to this scene in order to demonstrate the effects/affects of adopting Indigenous children, in that their identities become skewed, queered, and questioned by Indigenous peoples themselves. Often, Indigenous adoptees and their children must play Indian in order to feel Indian lest their Indigeneity be continually questioned and disregarded. This playing Indian can create troubling effects in regards to cultural appropriation but, after years of suffering and searching for our birth families, I must add: adoptees are not simply appropriating, they are asking for acceptance.

Nizhoni later returns to the reservation to visit her grandparents. Here she discovers that her adopted mother did not want her biological family to have contact with her and that her adopted parents denied Nizhoni a plethora of written letters, which her grandmother then gifts to her. Nizhoni, asking if her birth family agreed to the arrangement (of not having contact with he), is answered by Ruth, who states, “We did, in the beginning. They offered you a good education and a stable home. We couldn’t compete with that. But the next thing we knew they shipped you off to Michigan.” Thus, Nizhoni’s adoptive story draws connections to the benevolent intentions of such laws as the ICWA (the Indian Child Welfare Act) which prioritizes placing Native children into Native homes though or with families that are willing to keep them within a certain proximity to their cultures. Though, as seen in the recent case of Lexi, one’s level of Nativeness comes into play and can be used to bypass the expectations set out by the ICWA through such avenues as blood quantums, Bill C31, and/or tribal disenfranchisement from the band that negate one’s status within their Indigenous nation. Without such status, a family may bypass the ICWA’s expectations and cut-off and/or outright restrict access to the biological family.

Nizhoni, now fully aware of her background, returns to her adopted family and questions them. Her adopted father notes that, “There were studies that said that adopted children could be traumatized if they’re reintroduced into their biological families.” Nizhoni’s adopted mother notes, “We did this with your best interest in mind. You think I wanted you to hang out in some shack with some drunk alcoholic relatives out on the reservation?” Thus, both adopted parents draw on narratives similar to those of Bartholet, narratives of the white saviour, biological determinism, disease models and Native American’s inherent predisposition to alcohol, as well as the inability for the extended family to raise their own children because they live in “Drunktown”.

The film ends with all of the film’s Native characters coming together for the puberty ceremony for Sick Boy’s sister. It is tradition that brings them together and reinstates them into their rightful places within the Navajo community; ceremony becomes a healing and decolonizing tactic that aids all three main characters. Tradition helps Sick Boy by allowing him to participate in woodcutting for the ceremony’s fire with the other men. Felixia is aided by Harmon’s telling her the story of the nádleehé and the river. Finally, Nizhoni returns to the reservation on her way to college and is reunited with her grandparents while discovering that Felixia is her cousin and that Sick Boy is a “Navajo cousin”. While everyone hugs, an eagle flies over the characters and Harmon informs them that it is a sign that good things are about to happen. It is through the reunion and reconnection of the adopted Indian child to her rightful community, that the community is reoriented towards a path of reconciliation and healing. It is implied that the adoption of Native children into non-Native families sits at the nexus of historical dispossession and intergenerational trauma for not only the adoptee and their family but also their kinship relations within the family.

Thus, the film draws us back to our calling for tradition and the (re)formation of a cultural nationalism that is adamant about its return to the homeland, return to the home space, and a return to the traditional in our current cultural/reconciliatory moment. The film expands definitions of reconciliation: we must also reconcile ourselves, Native to Native, and also decolonize what we mean by Indigeneity. That is, I want to push us to think on Indigeneity that is at once inclusive, intersectional, and interwoven, as a term that invites queer, non-normative, non-Status, Two-Spirit, trans, feminisms, and adoptees into its braids. I understand the anxieties around tribal membership and fraudulent Indians but I wholeheartedly advocate that we return our adopted brothers and sisters back into their rightful spaces. Furthermore, I strongly argue that filius nullius and terra nullius are inextricably bound as assimilative and death-driven tools for settler colonialism in ways that lay claim to access to Native lands and Native bodies. Adopting the Indian in the child allows the settler to assimilate one more Indian from their lands and in doing so creates one less body to claim space in Indian country. For, as we have been made aware, we can have all the treaties we want but without a body to claim said treaties they become nullified/nullius. As Briggs has argued, practices of adopting Native American children directly followed the abandonment of residential/boarding schools. Such adoption practices, which came into fruition through forms such as the forced removal of Native American children during Canada’s Sixties Scoop (and continuing today with CFS) and its parallel in the United States, the Indian Adoption Projects, exemplify the adaption of adoption as a settler colonial tool for dispossession and disenfranchisement. Our bodies are our own, as are our lands; terra nullius and filius nullius are myths that perpetuate and naturalize settler colonialism as a savior and benefactor of Indigeneity.

Yet, I do not want to end on such a simple note as returning to tradition as a fix-all remedy. Conceptions of Native American traditionalisms and cultural nationalisms can and ought to be questioned and criticized as well. As exemplified in the film, often adoptees are disallowed re-entry into their rightful communities due in part to internalized heteropatriarchal colonialisms based on politics of recognition, blood quantums, and cultural practices. Furthermore, adoptees and their children are often not permitted entrance to cultural and/or ceremonial practices and are thus not allowed access to these knowledges which predicate their Nativeness. Adoptees and their children must “play Indian” in order to be feel and be Indian and this is far too often read as unfaithful and appropriative.

Thus I ask: how can we heal when ceremony isn’t tailored for who we are as Indigenous adoptees? We need to go forward in our thinking of how such tools of settler colonialism, including adoption, not only dispossess us of our identities and lands but also of our modes of thinking, being, and feeling. We need to question if our current understandings of “tradition” are truly traditional—have we internalized colonial practices that delimit and dispossess adoptees, non-status Indians, Metis, and/or two-spirit/queer Indigenous peoples? How can we heal with tradition when tradition is an adaptation of colonization that is riddled with capitalism, heteropatriarchy, and models of the nuclear family?

I want to end with a short story of my own. In 1962, my grandmother, Rose Whitehead, was murdered in Saskatoon by a man named Steven Kozaruk. This would be the beginning of my family’s bifurcation. My father and his five siblings were displaced through Child and Family Services. While I recall the stories my father tells me of his experiences, one saved newspaper clipping stands out in particular; the headline reads: “Funeral is only chance for reunion; Indians have no funds to reunite adopted-out families.” In our current reconciliatory moment, I want us to also think on Native American adoptees. I want us to push for apologies (beyond Manitoba), reparations, compensation, access to original birth certificates, and more specifically, funding for kinship resurgence for families displaced through adoption: we owe this to all survivors of the Sixties Scoop.

Joshua Whitehead is an Oji-Cree member of the Peguis First Nation in Manitoba (Treaty 1). He identifies as Two-Spirit/niizh manitoag. Joshua is currently undertaking a Ph.D. in English and Creative Writing at the University of Calgary (Treaty 7) where he focuses on Indigenous Literatures/Cultures, Critical Race Theory, Queer Theory, and Gender Studies.  You can find his recent work published in Prairie Fire, CV2, EVENT Magazine, Arc Poetry Magazine, Lemon Hound, Red Rising Magazine, and Geez Magazine‘s issue on “Decolonization”.


[1] As a caveat, this essay deploys Indigeneity as a pan-Indigenous concept that applies to all of North America, while primarily focusing upon both Navajo and Plains Cree Nations as specific examples.


Works Cited

Baxter, Kent. The Modern Age: Turn-of-the-Century American Culture and the Invention of Adolescence. Tuscaloosa: U of Alabama P, 2011. Print.

Briggs, Laura. Somebody’s Children: The Politics of Transracial and Transnational Adoption. Durham: Duke UP, 2012. Print.

DeMeyer, Trace A. and Patricia Cotter-Busbee. Two Worlds: Lost Children of the Indian             Adoption Projects. Greenfield: Blue Hand Books, 2012. Print.

Jacobs, Margaret D. A Generation Removed: The Fostering & Adoption of Indigenous Children in the Postwar Period. Lincoln: U of Nebraska P, 2014. Print.

Klein, Christina. Cold War Orientalism: Asia in the Middlebrow Imagination, 1945- 1961. Berkeley: U of California P, 2003. Print.

Drunktown’s Finest. Dir. Sydney Freeland. Sundance Channel, 2014. Film.


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