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Back in December of 2011, when I was still very new to xoJane, I wrote a piece about being adopted. Because there is the trope of the tragic adopted kid, I wanted to be present as an alternate image, kind of an adoption success story. I don't personally sweat being adopted and I do believe adoption can create amazing families.
But it can also, when white adoptive parents care more about acquiring a child than they do about the well-being of a child with a different racial heritage, be terrible. And now that the Supreme Court has ruled 5-4 in favor of removing Baby Veronica from the home of her biological father and returning her to the white couple who are trying to adopt her, we are watching adoption being used as a weapon to attack the sovereignty of indigenous peoples.
I'll back up because it's possible y'all have not heard about this. Baby Veronica was, until quite recently, known as Baby Girl -- of the Supreme Court case Adoptive Parents v Baby Girl. In 2009, Baby Veronica's mother decided to put her as-yet-unborn child up for adoption. What happened next is, at absolutely best, a clusterfuck of paperwork -- because when the adoption attorney inquired with the Cherokee Nation about the biological father's status, the attorney not only spelled the biological father's name wrong but got his birth date wrong, too.
Let us note that, had the correct name and birth date been referenced, this case would not even have been an issue. The Cherokee Nation takes its responsibility to its children very seriously -- and has a robust foster and adoption program in place to do just that.
This is backed up by the Indian Child Welfare Act (the ICWA), a treaty of sorts, which recognizes that tribes have the sovereign power to determine who is or is not a member and, most importantly, that tribes retain the authority to place their children in Indian foster and/or adoptive homes. This is not an obscure law, as some case coverage as dubbed it.
Another provision of the ICWA is that when an Indian parent voluntarily consents to termination of parental rights, the judge witnessing that consent must certify that the parent fully understands what that consent means. This is relevant because Dusten Brown, Baby Veronica's biological father, signed paperwork stating the he did not contest the adoption -- but he thought he was turning over his right to the biological mother, his ex-fiancee.
When he realized something else was going on, Brown -- an active duty serviceman (6 days from being deployed) -- consulted a JAG lawyer and then filed a stay of adoption with a civilian lawyer. By this point, Baby Veronica was already four months old. And the adoptive couple had already paid the biological mother $10,000. Baby Veronica was already two years old when the South Carolina State court declared that the adoptive couple -- the Capobiancos -- were trying to adopt a child who was never eligible for adoption in the first place.
(Please note also: even if Brown did abdicate all parental rights, the Cherokee Nation itself retains the right to place its children.)
People are, of course, complicated. The Capobiancos had invested not just money but a lot of time into building a relationship with Baby Veronica. They were there when she was born and they cared for her as though she were there own -- I have no doubt that in their mind she was becoming their own.
But I do have doubts in my mind about the coverage of this case -- and the framing of Dusten Brown as a deadbeat father with a child who "doesn't count" as Cherokee. Because the malicious stereotype of Native Americans as deadbeats (and drunkards) isn't anything new and the concept of "breeding out" Native Americans until they cease to exist isn't new either.
Yes, I took it to a serious place there. I'm disgusted by the coverage I've been reading, particularly responses from other adoptive families, like this one. (The entitlement that woman feels to Native babies is seriously making me physically ill.) And, as a child who was adopted and a person who has firmly believed that family does not need to be determined by blood, I have to tell that woman -- and the Capobiancos -- that they are doing adoption wrong.
Transracial adoption is hardly a new thing, no matter how much attention celebrities draw to it these days. It was aggressively practiced after 1945, for example, when Asian babies were adopted by white couples (and it is almost always white people who pursue transracial adoption) in order to create deliberately multiracial families. This coincided with a decrease in the number of healthy white babies available for placement. Coincidence?
And between 1958 and 1967, Native American children were deliberately placed in white homes as well via the Indian Adoption Project. The Indian Adoption Project did more than place children -- it saw the removal of children from their homes. It deliberately and systemically separated Indian families and it did so with federal funds.
The ICWA was a direct response to the Indian Adoption Project and the general culture of "white saviorhood" that surrounded the removal of Native American children from their families. The Indian Adoption Project was regarded as cultural genocide -- because a culture lives through its children.
It's colonizing 101, isn't it? When you take a culture's children and raise them in the dominant colonizing culture, you erase that which was once well established. That was, in fact, the motto of the residential schools where Native children were shipped -- "Kill the Indian, Save the Man." (That was literal, by the way -- residential schools had mortality rates between 25-60%.) These were the schools where Native kids were punished for speaking their own languages, participating in their own cultures in any way. The goal was absolutely and explicitly to destroy Native cultures. That's the environment that bred the Indian Adoption Project in the first place.
The survivors of these projects still live with the consequences.
And it's a history of cultural destruction that leads, as so many of these sorts of things do, right back to a money trail. Because if tribe membership falls, tribe lands come up for grabs. Given that a lot of reservation lands are rich in mineral resources, it's not a stretch to imagine that some folks have a vested interest in making sure Native Americans truly disappear.
But, Marianne, you say -- because I can hear you objecting. All of that is history! It's different now! But the thing is, it's not so different. There were open residential schools in the 1980s. And more than half the states in the nation are still failing to abide by the ICWA. NPR (whose coverage of the Baby Veronica case has been appalling) has documented this -- the majority of kids in the South Dakota foster system are Native kids who have been removed from their homes for spurious reasons.
That's the context we need to be aware of as we consider Baby Veronica and Dusten Brown and the Capobiancos -- because the position that the Capobiancos find themselves in is shitty but that doesn't actually mean a good goddamn when it comes to the way white people have stolen Native children for decades. You cannot tell me, me sitting here as a product of the adoption industry myself, that Baby Veronica's cultural context doesn't matter.
Hell, even if the Capobiancos don't care about any of the history, they ought to care about Baby Veronica's future. Even I, with my lack of angst about my impossible-to-determine background, could tell them that part of being adopted is feeling like there is no beginning to your story. There are no pages that come before. And you are part of your adopted family's story but it is not all that is there -- you sense what is missing, lurking below you, like something that lives under the bed. You might be friendly with that spectre but it's still there, still haunting.
The Cherokee Nation has no minimal blood requirement to be considered a member of the tribe. But much has been made of Dusten's and Baby Veronica's small percentage of Indian blood as though that somehow invalidates their right to be seen as Cherokee in the eyes of the public. That's what people are leaning on to justify violating the ICWA to try and give Baby Veronica to a white family in South Carolina who do not appear to have any respect for her culture.
The Supreme Court opinion holds that because Dusten Brown never had custody of his child, the ICWA is not applicable. But the ICWA has never before been dependent on child custody. A definition is being forced in favor of once again dismantling Native families and culture. Adoption laws, including the ICWA, are designed to have the best interest of the child involved at heart -- where is that best interest in removing Baby Veronica from her father's home and giving her to a white couple, no matter how loving, to raise?
I hope Baby Veronica is lucky. I hope she never has to know the blankness that is the erased heritage of a child who has been adopted and cut off from their history. There are success stories and I think the more we talk about open adoption, the better. There are wonderful, responsible parents who are working hard every day to bridge that culture gap with their transracially adopted kids. But the Native kids who were stolen and erased by the residential schools and the Indian Adoption Project aren't as distant as some people seem to think. And that's some adoption history that everyone needs to be aware of.