AMERICAN INDIAN ADOPTEES: Split Feathers Study by Carol Locus (Cherokee)
Split Feathers… Adult American Indians who were placed in Non-Indian Families as Children
By Carol Locust, Cherokee Nation [Reprinted with the permission of the National Indian Child Welfare Association Inc., published in Pathways, September / October 1998, Volume 13, Number 4.]
The Indian Child Welfare Act (ICWA) of 1978 was designed specifically to stop the wholesale removal of Indian children from their families, which had contributed to the destruction of the traditional extended family structures and Indian community life for over a century. A follow-up study in 1980 by the Colorado Indian Law Review revealed that the Act only slowed the removal of children but did not stop it as the Act was intended to do. Tribal leaders called upon the Supreme Court to assure enforcement of the ICWA until amendments could be made to the Act to tighten loopholes through which many Indian children are still being snatched. At this writing (1998), the amendments have not been made.
The pilot study conducted by this investigator indicated that every Indian child placed in a non-Indian home for either foster care or adoption is placed at great risk of long-term psychological damage as an adult. There is, however, a lack of sufficient research dedicated specifically to the investigation of this issue. Data supporting the statement of at risk adult American Indian adoptees come from the Congressional Hearings pursuant to the Indian Child Welfare Act (1978). Essentially, the issue of the adult Indian who was placed in a non-Indian home as a child has not been addressed. The literature that does exist on adult Indians who have experienced out-of-culture placements as children, including the preliminary study conducted by this investigator on which this article is based, indicates that nineteen (19) out of twenty (20) Indian adoptees have psychological problems related to their placement in non-Indian homes.
The study determined that there are unique factors of Indian children being placed in non-Indian homes, that create damaging effects in the later lives of the children.
This study has revealed that:
• placing American Indian children in foster/ adoptive non-Indian homes puts them at great risk for experiencing psychological trauma that leads to the development of long-term emotional and psychological problems in later life
• the cluster of long-term psychological liabilities exhibited by American Indian adults who experienced non-Indian placement as children may be recognized as a syndrome (Syndrome: a set of symptoms, which occur together. From Dorland’s Medical Dictionary, 24th edition, 1965.)
The Split Feather Syndrome appears to be related to a reciprocal-possessive form of belongingness unique to survivors of cultures that have faced annihilation.
The Split Feathers themselves have identified the following factors as major contributors to the development of the syndrome, in order of their importance:
1. the loss of Indian identity
2. the loss of family, culture, heritage, language, spiritual beliefs, tribal affiliation and tribal ceremonial experiences
3. the experience of growing up being different
4. the experience of discrimination from the dominant culture
5. a cognitive difference in the way Indian children receive, process, integrate and apply new information—in short, a difference in learning style
Other contributing factors included physical, sexual and mental abuse from adoptive family members; loss of birth brothers and sisters; uncaring or abusive foster/adoptive families; not being told anything or being lied to about their adoption; not being given advanced notice of moves; too many moves; nobody to talk to; loss of personal property.
The following sections will explore the five major factors listed above that contribute to the development of the Split Feather Syndrome.
The Loss of Indian Identity
The loss of American Indian identity appears to be one of the most important factors in the development of the Split Feather Syndrome. The data indicate that the loss of the Indian identity is not the same as the loss of personal identity, although it included the personal aspect. Additionally, however, is the loss of belonging to one’s real culture.
Almost all of the respondents indicated a defiant, almost fierce pride in being an American Indian. When questioned about what the Indian identity was, the responses repeated most frequently were “I belong to that tribe;” “That is my tribe.” The individual belonged to the tribe, and the tribe likewise belonged to him or her, a reciprocal possessiveness of cultural identity which may be found in members of other cultures who have undergone great grieving, such as the survivors of the Holocaust.
The belongingness of tribal identity also seemed to embody the reason for one’s being “different,” the roots of ancestral pride, the foundations of mystical beliefs and tenets and, as one respondent wrote, “the drums that thunder in my blood.” The Indian identity, in those terms, meant much more than personal or family identity. It became the totality of the person’s existence without which he or she was nothing.
The Loss of Family, Culture, Heritage, Language, Spiritual Beliefs, Tribal Affiliation And Tribal Ceremonial Experiences
The reciprocal possessiveness of the factors listed above (loss of family, culture, heritage, etc.) indicated that Split Feathers not only felt a loss of these “possessions” because they were his or hers by birthright, but also that the individual was the “possession” of the things identified here. For example, not only did the individuals mourn the loss of their families, but they also mourned their families’ loss of them as well. The loss of their biological family, extended family, clan and tribe was an unending grief for the respondents, a grief that spawned deep-seated resentment and hatred for the adoption system.
Their biological relatives belonged to them, and they belonged to their relatives, a belongingness that connected the adoptees with relatives, clan members and tribal members. They could see in other Indians a reflection of themselves, a fact that satisfied the human need to be like those around them.
The loss of culture, heritage and language seemed to encompass the total lifestyle that the respondents had missed. One said, “I was supposed to have a naming ceremony when I was two years old, and I didn’t get it. I don’t have a name. How can I go back to my tribe if I don’t have a name?” Another wrote, “Somebody said that we could learn all we needed to learn about our culture and heritage from books and videos from our school. What a laugh! What we got was a watered down, Indian-style-Sesame-Street version of what some white person thought all Indians were like.”
All of the Split Feathers said they read books, watched TV shows and saw movies about Indians when they were children. No matter what the plot of the story, they championed the Indians, even when John Wayne was on the winning side, even, the majority said, when the Indians were portrayed as brutal savages, drunks or dirty thieves. Their feeling toward real life Indians was not any different.
“They told me my parents were alcoholics and that I was lucky to be out of the home,” one respondent said. “But I don’t feel that way. Poor Mom, poor Dad, maybe I could have helped some way. I’ll never know. I never had the chance to find out. Nobody ever asked me if I wanted to stay or not, they just drove up one day and took me. My mother had this horrible, disbelieving look on her face. I never saw her again.”
Despite the negative portrayal of Indian people in the media and in most non-Indian people’s minds, the respondents were proud to be Indian.
Many of them had been told horror stories about their birth families, which always ended with “aren’t you glad you came to live with us?” The fact was that most of the stories expounded on the negative aspects – rather than the positive aspects – of the biological families and were twisted versions of the truth or were outright lies. None of the respondents said they were “glad” about their adoptive placement.
Tribal spirituality seemed to transcend the adoptive experience. All of the respondents regarded themselves as being spiritual, either in an organized church, a personal religious way or in their tribal belief system. Of the twenty respondents, Fourteen reported having extrasensory experiences from childhood, ranging from knowing about things before they happened, having dreams that came true, knowing what someone else was thinking and being able to communicate with animals. Seventeen of the respondents said they had actively sought more information about their tribal traditional beliefs, hoping to find explanations for the mystical experiences in their lives or learn more about their own tribal beliefs.
Most of the respondents viewed tribal ceremonial experiences as an integral part of spirituality. While eleven of the twenty had been able to experience at least one tribal ceremony, nine had not had the opportunity. Thirteen of the twenty had attended at least one Indian pow-wow or celebration, while seven had been denied the privilege but expressed optimism about attending one in the future. Four of them had taken part in sweats. One of the twenty said he was allowed to attend Indian celebrations as a child.
Re-entry into the culture took place after the Split Feathers had reclaimed their Indian identity. Sixteen of the 20 respondents said they were ignorant or knew very little about traditional ceremonies that they’d missed over the years, although four of them knew about several of their tribal customs and traditions associated with ceremonies. All of them felt they had been robbed of the ceremonies that other tribal children were given but that they had never experienced. All 20 of them said they had several pieces of Indian art, such as jewelry, pottery, basketry or such that held a ceremonial meaning for them.
One individual had been given a ceremonial eagle feather. Tribal affiliation – being enrolled in a tribe – was a serious subject for all 20 of the Split Feathers. Sixteen of them had had their enrollment cancelled when they were adopted into non-Indian homes. The names of four had remained on tribal rolls. At the time of this study, six of them had two sets of birth records, one of Indian ancestry bearing their birth names and family names, and another set bearing their adoptive names. The one respondent who had not yet found his Indian identity had been searching archival records for years trying to locate some clue to his tribal affiliation.
“Those pieces of paper – the adoption papers – took away my Indian rights,” another respondent wrote.
“Those papers took away my entitlement to my land settlement money, my right to live on tribal land, to vote in tribal elections, to apply for tribal scholarships, my right to be an Indian. My birthright was stolen from me. But they could not take away the fact that I was an Indian. I burned those papers. I hated them.”
Growing Up Being Different
In describing what they meant by being “different,” the Split Feathers used such words as dark skin, black hair, dark eyes and “the Indian look.” Besides physical differences they also included having different philosophical concepts, even though most of them had been adopted too young to have learned any tribal philosophy. The fourteen respondents who said that they had extrasensory experiences felt that this ability made them even more different. The differences made them feel alienated from other people. All of the Split Feathers said that they were extremely self-conscious. Some were painfully shy and withdrawn as children; others became belligerent and aggressive. Being different also included the concepts that non-Indians had of them, e.g., Indians had certain traits (stoic, brave), behaved certain ways (never showed emotion, spoke very little), had certain knowledge inherent in their blood (when it was going to rain, herbal remedies). These imposed expectations were burdensome to most of the Split Feathers, who felt guilty because they could not fulfill them. One respondent said it made her feel like a “fake” Indian because she could not fit the stereotype of “Indian”. Nine of the twenty respondents said that they felt frustrated and angry because of the unfair expectations placed on them, while the opportunities to be all that was expected of them as “Indians” had been taken away.
One respondent wrote, “Being different was horrible, like being a freak. At the same time I was proud. Feeling horrible and proud about the same thing splits your brain apart. You hate what it does to you.”
Although being different created major psychological problems for the Split Feathers, it was also a source of intense pride.
Experiencing Discrimination from the Dominant Culture
All twenty of the respondents in the random sample experienced some degree of discrimination. Words used to describe the cause of discrimination were “being dark,” “being Indian,” and “not being white,” discrimination came from adults as well as children and occurred within the adoptive families; from relatives and neighbors; and at schools, churches and social functions. The average age when “knowing I was different” began at three years of age; the average age when discrimination began to be a serious problem for the respondents was 11 years. Puberty was a traumatic time for all the respondents when they learned that their limited acceptance in the non-Indian world did not include dating white youth. Thirteen of the 20 reported some amount of alienation from their adoptive families during this period, from hostility to acting out rage and running away. The estrangement increased as the adoptees reached young adulthood. “I asked a girl to dance with me at a junior high party. Her brother dragged me outside and beat me up, told me no dirty Indian was going to get close to his sister,” one respondent wrote. Another respondent wrote that as a young girl she never got asked out on dates. Her adopted mother told her to “go find yourself an Indian.” That was the first time she realized that she was not being asked out because of her race.
Discrimination was also felt in the work force as well as in the social realm when “Split Feathers reached adulthood. Jobs often went to less qualified non-Indians. Promotions were slow in coming, infrequent or denied. One respondent stated that he felt employers never really trusted him because he looked so “Indian” and that his appearance was against him in obtaining employment. Another wrote, “I had just gone through the alcohol rehab program. I was pleased that I had been sober for three months. In the program I had the opportunity to do a sweat, and I really hung on to that experience, to that little bit of the Indian world. Then I went to the state VR office to get help in finding a job. They told me to cut my hair. My long hair was the only part of me that I could claim as my heritage. I said I wouldn’t cut it. They said forget about working, no one would hire me looking like a wild Indian, only if I looked tame.”
Cognitive Differences in the Way Indian Children Receive, Process, Integrate and Apply New Information (A Difference in Learning Style)
Based on the Split Feather testimonies, it would appear that American Indians have a cognitive process different from non-Indians. While all 20 of them said that they felt that they were average or above in intelligence, half of them had spent time in remedial education programs in school. Five respondents had been labeled as Learning Disabled.
Two were classified as “slow learners.” All of them had failed at least one grade in school. The reasons for academic problems were given in episodes. “I just couldn’t learn like all the other kids. The teacher talked too much, too many words. I learned better through my eyes.”
“When I was in the fifth grade I got punished in front of the whole class for not remembering the capital city of Wyoming. That’s when I decided to learn my own way, not theirs. I worked out my own strategy all by myself. My adopted family didn’t know what I was doing so they couldn’t help me…I kept thinking either there’s something wrong with my brain or theirs, because our brains don’t work the same way when it comes to learning. And since I was the only Indian in the class, I figured out that there was something wrong with my brain. It was frustrating; I hated school. I could learn okay, and fast outside school, but in my school lessons I had to do it their way, not mine. And I failed.”
Reading was the most difficult subject for the Split Feathers. Surprisingly, math was not that difficult.
“Numbers are logical,” said one respondent. The overall picture of the educational success of the Split Feather group was rather dismal, however. The inability to absorb information in the same manner as the other children engendered failure for them, and failure begat more failure, poor self-esteem and often either withdrawal or aggression. Frustrations in elementary school led to difficult junior high school years and early drop-out rates in high school. Of the 20 respondents, only five completed a high school degree. Of the other 15, one went into the military, three were in correctional facilities, four got married and the other seven entered the job market with little or varying degrees of success.
Later in their lives, six of them had either taken college courses or attended advanced training for job placement. None of them described themselves as a success. Although one respondent said he was “doing all right.”
The Effects of Reclaimed Indian Identity on the Split Feathers
For nineteen of the 20 individuals in this preliminary study (one had not yet found his tribe nor his tribal identity), repatriation or reclamation of their tribal identity was described as a rebirth experience. Although fear of not being accepted was a major personal problem, and threats of being disowned came from adoptive parents, all of them said they were glad they had pursued their quests to find out who they were.
Descriptors used for the experience were: “I felt whole for the first time in my life.”
“Thank God I finally know who I am!” “I finally found what I am, what is part of me, what I am part of.” “I found the missing part of me and put it back in place. Now I can really be alive.”
“I found where I really belonged, my place, my home, my true identity.”
When asked how they felt about rejoining a cultural group that was frequently described in degrading terms (drunk Indians, lazy, dirty, stupid) and against which there were many racist, bigoted and prejudiced people, not one of the Split Feathers said they would change their minds. From their responses, it appeared that social, economic and cultural labels had no impact whatever on their repatriation decisions. Most of them said they began helping their birth families and relatives as soon as they found out who they were.
They received tribal teachings in return, a reciprocal process that satisfied the needs of the whole family.
Eighteen of the nineteen respondents who had reclaimed their Indian identity said their personal lives had changed dramatically for the better after the reclamation. A good description of the change, written by one respondent, reads, “The weight of hurting, loneliness, anger and sorrow I carried all those years was dropped, and my soul could soar.”
Another said, “It’s like I was blind, stumbling through life looking for myself, and now – now I can see.”
The respondents used the following statements to indicate the profound change in their psychological health, in order of how often the were repeated
• decrease in depressive feelings
• decrease in alcohol and drug abuse
• decrease in aggressive behaviours
• increase in self-esteem
• feelings of love, joy, generosity, sympathy, understanding
• feelings of finding a purpose in life
• increase in spiritual activities
increase in days worked (working more regularly, finding a job, and getting a better job)
Other changes mentioned were
• spending more time with my own family
• spending leisure time constructively
• making a commitment to carry through with my responsibilities
• paying more attention to the needs of other people
• learning more about my tribe and my spiritual beliefs
• going back to school to get my GED
• taking care of myself
• looking at the sky instead of the dirt (dreaming dreams again)
• smiling a lot more often
About the author: Carol Locust is Training Director for the Native American Research and Training Center at the University of Arizona College of Medicine. Her work involves counseling and employment issues with people with disabilities. She also works with traditional medicine and ceremonies as a part of current healing practices. Carol is a member of the Eastern Band of Cherokee Nation.
In their own words… What Split Feathers say
“They gave me everything a child could ever ask for, except my Native American identity. All my years growing up in school I was cut down and made fun of because I was Indian. I was darker, had dark hair, and I was ‘different.’ I grew up resenting who I was, what I was; of course I kept all the shame to myself, therefore building resentment. I am waiting now for enrollment in my tribe and waiting to establish contact with my biological family. I wish I had grown up being proud – like I am proud today.”
“My foster mother was very abusive. She always said we were dirty because we were dark. She beat us often, made our noses bleed. But the worst thing she did was denying us our Indian heritage. Courts should never let anything like this happen. Indian children need to be with Indian families, not white families that are so different from Indian.”
“Adoption causes such intense inner pain that you do anything just to get away from it. No one understands you, you are different, and there’s no one to talk to. You withdraw into yourself, keep it all inside. That’s how I got into trouble with alcohol: it was pain medicine.”
“I was adopted at age four, started school just before five, grew up in a middle class family that was okay. But I started having dreams about age five about being taken away (from the adoptive home), taken back to my family, by Indians. My family didn’t pay much attention to the Indian spirit within me, or to me, either. I communicated more with animals than I did people. In the sixth grade I started having problems with the other kids. Whites, Mexicans and others didn’t like me because of being Indian. I got into lots of fights and became a loner.”
“I am 72 years old. I was adopted into a white family at age one-and-a-half when my mother died. I realized I was different before I ever went to school. When I asked, my foster parents told me I was Indian, and from that day I identified with Indians, because that was what I was. I didn’t know who I was, and that heartache and anguish has been with me for nearly 70 years. I hope your study can help me find out who I am before I die. I don’t want to die not knowing my true identity. They (the government) sealed my birth certificate so I could never find my identity and never see my blood relatives. The pain of this is never ending.”