So many people have a book in them, often a personal and even obsessive account of their own lives but often an account that offers valuable help to others. This is entangled in the American conviction that the right book can lift anyone into fame and fortune, sort of like being a movie star or an athletic hero. And for American Indians there is another force, the one created by the worldwide fascination with the 19th century horseback warrior as depicted over and over -- talk about obsession.
Trace DeMeyer knew she was adopted, knew she was Native American, but had no idea what that really meant, so she stashed it. But in one of those contemporary puzzles of not feeling as though one is really who one seems to be -- Trace calls it being “a duck raised by chickens” -- it kept coming back until she addressed it. Not all at once and not without kicking a lot of other monsters out of the brush. Like sexual abuse and alcoholism, but not in her Indian roots -- rather in the white family who adopted her.
Trace is short for Tracy, and a great name for a detective. The book she finally self-published, “One Small Sacrifice: Lost Children of the Indian Adoption Projects,” is a case study both of herself and of a whole class of people produced by social worker policy in adopting so many indigenous kids out of what were considered sub-standard families into what were thought to be “normal, well-adjusted” white families. The name given to this class of person is “split-feathers” or “lost birds.”
No doubt most of the people concerned in the Fifties, when this practice was at its peak, thought they were doing the right thing. Adoption is one of those complex, double-edged psychological issues. But now, partly because the political implications of genocide (snuffing an entire category of people, not by murdering their bodies but by renaming their identities) and partly because of money issues (many tribes are organized as cooperatives that share all assets of the group or at least as share-holders in the corporate model) things have become complicated indeed.
At the core of the issue is the feeling of being “different” at best and “not good enough” at worst, and hoping to leap out of the dilemma by discovering one is a “lost princess” switched at birth. Then the danger becomes locating one’s real birth family and having to face all the issues that caused a child to be removed, voluntarily or not. Especially for those with romantic ideas about Indians, the jolt can be pretty hard.
These forces both are and are not present in Trace’s story. Her middle name is Persistence, I feel sure, and she had an experienced journalist’s ability to constantly find new leads. She was and is in Massachusetts so didn’t have to be told, “Yes, Virginia, there are Indians back East.” She knew Indian families and wrote for Indian newspapers (News from Indian Country, Ojibwe Akiing (which she helped found), and Pequot Times) besides participating in online discussion groups like H-Amerindian, where we met. (I am not Indian but have a fifty-year relationship with the Blackfeet reservation.)
The key to her story is infrastructure: networks, contacts, legislation, social worker practices, genealogy, genomic evidence and this is what makes her book more valuable than simply her own story -- which is what holds it all together. She took notes, she kept records, she organized. She helped all the other Lost Birds. (I don't like the term "split feathers" much -- I'd prefer "double feathers.")
For a while Trace was in the Pacific Northwest where we might have met except that the timing was off. Two major area figures in the “Lost Bird” movement are Terry Cross, a social worker specializing in issues about the abuse of Indian children, and Terry Tafoya, who speaks at workshops on the subject of cross-cultural adoption. Trace mentions Cross, but not Tafoya, who has spoken more about adopted Indian males.
Minority babies are often considered very “cute,” like little dolls. Esp. in a liberal community they are accepted because they are no threat. Tafoya is eloquent about the boy who at adolescence meets the issue of whether you’d want your sister to marry an Indian. But the adult female is still not a threat -- in fact, the vague exotic aura can be sexually attractive. Trace is quite beautiful. Even with bleached hair she has high-cheek-bone flair, and because she had been abused, she has had to fight to get the “kick me” sign off her back.
There has been much talk about the glass ceiling over women, but not so much about the glass ceiling above “dark” people who must fight a different kind of stigma. Like women, NA people are promotable into petit professional jobs: management, teachers, business entrepreneurs. So long as they have recognizably virtuous ideas about reliability, sobriety, “values” and all that, everything is fine. But getting into the real responsibility and money just doesn’t happen.
The worst part of it is that those with the stigma accept it. They feel it is part of their identity. It takes a good deal of experience, if not therapy, to get past that nearly unconscious belief that somehow white people have contacts or skills or information that the striver has no access to. I think this is where some of the rage over people who claim to be Indian comes from. Another aspect is Indian impatience with all the zillion people who claim to have Cherokee princess grandmothers, even Bill Clinton.
Trace had the idea I might know where she could find a publisher. She and her friends are self-publishing now and only partly aware that the publishing industry has collapsed. It’s very recent and, in fact, not enough time has passed for publishing to re-form as something new that can handle both paper books and ebooks. But I have this idea for publishers: consider the success of Indians in re-forming from cultures smashed in their 19th century form, but somehow carrying their essential identity into today’s corporate reservation or urban diasphora. Consider that Trace herself managed to rebuild from a slightly uneasy and askew adoptee into a resourceful double-heritage and eloquent spokesperson for many people.
In the meantime, buy the book direct.
Trace A. DeMeyer
PO Box 1061
Greenfield, MA 01302
Google News Group: American Indian Adoptees