A Child of the Indian Race by Sandy White Hawk

Excerpt of an interview with reporter Nancy Marie Spears for The Imprint

In her new memoir, author Sandy White Hawk writes of her abusive adoptive home and how she went on to empower other adoptees across the country. The book takes its title from documents finalizing White Hawk’s adoption, where she is identified as “a child of the indian race (sic).”

White Hawk, whose Lakota name is “Cokta Najiŋ Wiŋyaŋ, Stands in the Center Woman,” began taking notes for her memoir 20 years ago. Her life story begins with her removal from the Rosebud Indian Reservation in South Dakota in 1955.

White Hawk describes her early childhood separation from her tribe as particularly tragic because she ended up living so close — and yet so far — from her kin. Her adoptive parents originally lived near her reservation, where many of her biological relatives and her mother lived. But they moved from South Dakota to Wisconsin when White Hawk was 4, to give her “a better chance,” in the words of her adoptive mother. Even from a young age, White Hawk recalls, she suspected a deception.

This gaslighting by missionaries who punished her for her Indigeneity became internalized shame, and remained constant through her childhood, White Hawk recounts. She started drinking at age 14 and doing drugs at 16.

From a young age, White Hawk writes she was told she had been rescued from a life of destitution; that her mother was an alcoholic who gave her up and never really wanted her except as a “welfare check so she could drink.” She was “lucky” the white, missionary couple adopted her. They “saved” her from the reservation.

White Hawk was adopted prior to the passage of the 1978 Indian Child Welfare Act, which aims to protect tribal children from foster care and adoption into non-tribal homes. She has no record of being in the foster care system, but duly notes that when her care and custody changed hands, there were no legal protections that might have kept her closer to her home on the Rosebud reservation and among her Sicangu Lakota family and culture.

In the decades before the law known as ICWA was passed, as many as one-third of Indigenous children were being removed from their Indigenous communities. “Adoptions were either closed, or there wasn’t due process,” said White Hawk, who does not name her adoptive mother in her book. But she describes her as abusive sexually, verbally and emotionally. Her adoptive mother, she writes, made sure she knew that being a Native child was something to be despised, not celebrated.

In 2012, White Hawk created the Minneapolis-based First Nations Repatriation Institute, a first-of-its-kind nonprofit that serves as a resource for Indigenous people who have experienced foster care and adoption, guiding them “to return home, reconnect, and reclaim their identity.”

White Hawk’s approach to healing for Native adoptees merges the power of song and ceremony with the expansion of research and data. — Read Nancy’s full story on Sandy White Hawk’s memoir at https://bit.ly/3HjBKo.