Susan Devan Harness
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When I was five, Mom and I laid out on the lawn and ran our fingers through the grass, looking for four-leaf clovers. Because if you found one, you're going to be lucky. That's what she said. Our arms were side by side, almost touching, and I looked at her, and I said, "You know, Mom? You have beautiful skin." And she said, "This old white freckled skin? What I'd give to have beautiful young brown skin like yours." People always ask me when I realized I was adopted, when I found out I was adopted. And I've known for as long as I can remember. When I was in first grade, I rode the bus with my two best friends, Christie and Jennifer, and we sat three to a seat. And we talked about life the way first-graders do. And they asked me, "Where were you born?" And I gave them my standard reply: "I wasn't born. I was adopted." (Laughter) They were intrigued. "Do you remember your real parents?" they asked. "Not really," I said, "but I do have one memory." And then I paused for dramatic effect, and I watched them lean in, and then I just started making up a story (Laughter) of my Native American birth parents:

my mom, who smiled at me as she leaned over the crib and her long dark hair tickled my face; of my father, who had white teeth against dark skin and his hair in a crew cut. I was ... I was like the hit of the party. But the thing is, the real story is, is that because I was removed from my reservation family when I was 18 months old and placed with a white couple when I was two, I have no memory of my parents, of my family, or of my tribe. Nothing. Which is what I want to call into question today. We do this all the time. We remove children from their birth families. We sever those ties forever, for their entire lives. And we put them in a world far away. And we sit back and think everything's going to be okay. And I can tell you from my personal experience as being a transracial adoptee it is a lot more complicated than that. When I was in elementary school, I remember going to friends' homes. And I'd listen to their parents tell stories about their daughter's first stumbling steps or their son who spit out the green peas when he was first learning how to eat solid foods. And they'd laugh, parents and children. And they took for granted those known pasts. Because what I knew is that I didn't have those stories. And I didn't look like either one of my parents, and I didn't really look like anybody in my community. When I was in third grade, I asked Victor if he wanted to play tag. I'd known Victor forever. He and I played on the school playground all the time. I had a huge crush on Victor. (Laughter) But that day, he looked at his new friend, and he looked at me, and he said, "You're a squaw." And I didn't know what that meant, but I knew it wasn't a compliment. And as I got older, the harsh words and the bigotry got worse. When I was 15, I awoke one Saturday morning to my dad in the front garden, drunk, stumbling around a short cement statue of a toddler. Using cheap watercolors, he painted her hair yellow and her eyes blue. And then he turns to me and says, "Isn't she the cutest thing? I have always wanted to have a blond-haired, blue-eyed girl, and now I've got one." And at that moment, I realized that my safe neighborhood, my white upper-middle-class high school, the orchestra I played in, the choir I sang in was not going to protect me from being American Indian. And because I inhabited these spaces, I thought that if I did all the same things that my white friends did that I would be just like them, only browner. And I wasn't. How much I wanted somebody in my life who looked like me, who knew what it felt like, who could teach me what being American Indian meant that was more than what I was picking up in John Wayne movies. And I knew that my adoptive family couldn't do that but that my birth family could. And so, I began to fantasize about finding my birth family. So, I mustered up my courage, and I asked the one question that I'd asked only once years before: "Dad, what happened to my real parents?" Years before, Dad had simply said, "They died in a car accident." This time, however, he was furious. "What do you mean your real parents? We are your real parents. We feed you, we clothe you, we educate you. You have a roof over your head because of us. We are your real parents, and don't you forget that." So, when I got to college, of course, I wanted to hang out with the Native American kids. And I joined up with them one evening. But as soon as I opened my mouth to say my name and my white accent came out, that's when the questions started: "What are you? Are you Indian? Are you a skin? Are you a breed? Redskin? Half-breed?" A guy at the back of the group says, "No, she's neither one of those. She's an apple: red on the outside, white on the inside." I wasn't going to find belonging there, either. A few years later, I'd made contact with a social worker in Helena, Montana, who illegally showed me my adoption files. And for the very first time, I saw the names of my parents. And I saw the names of my eight brothers and sisters. And although it said that my birth father had died many years before in a drowning accident, my birth mom was still alive and living just 50 miles away from me. But I was too nervous to do anything with that information. Couple years later, I opened up the tribal newspaper, which I get because I'm a tribal member, and here's a letter to the editor that says there's too many white Indians on this reservation. And my mind goes immediately back to that guy in the group who called me an apple. And I'm essentially hearing one of my own call me an apple. So, I wrote an angry response, I signed my name, and I signed my birth name. A week after it was published, I got a phone call ... from my sisters. (Cheers) (Applause) From my birth sisters. Like, what a concept for an only child. They had said, the first thing, "We've been looking for you for a long time." What they'd called for is they wanted to invite me to a family reunion up in Montana. And I eagerly accepted. So, as I was driving up there, I just kept thinking how badly I wanted to meet them and how much I wanted to be accepted by them. But I also knew that we were strangers. And I didn't want my expectations to get too high. But as I arrived and got out of the car and saw the gathering of people in the clearing, I was looking at my family for the very first time: aunts and uncles and cousins and brothers and sisters and nieces and nephews. My birth mom was sitting in a chair on the far side of the clearing. How do you start that conversation? I walked over to her, and I knelt in front of her, and using the name she gave me, I said, "I'm Vicky Charmain. I've come home." She started crying then, and she turned her head in shame. I was 34 years old, and she was 57. Since that time, anybody who's had anything to do with raising me has passed away: my grandparents, my birth parents, my adoptive parents. And although I have a relationship with my brothers and sisters, too much time has passed, and that relationship is far different than I thought that I'd have all those years ago. Because every time we get together, I feel like I have to start over again. Every single time. Now, you might think that these experiences would make anti-adoption. I'm not. I'm pragmatic. There will always be transracial adoption because there's always going to be war and genocide, disasters and disease, and political and economic instabilities. Every year, thousands of children throughout the world get placed with parents who are of a different race. The vast majority of those are children of color being placed with white parents. We call this transracial adoption. And it can have huge benefits. For instance, a higher standard of living or access to a better education. But you know what? The costs are high as well. Many transracial adoptees like myself have shown in studies that we end up with poor self-esteem or that we end up feeling isolated or lacking a place of belonging or lacking everyday role models who can teach us the positives of what it means to be ethnic in a white world. So, knowing that transracial adoption is always going to be with us, how do we make it better for the adoptee? Which brings me to the first question that I want to ask any prospective parent who's thinking about adopting: Why do you want to adopt? Now, we know the bad answers. Like when Angelina Jolie said she wanted a rainbow family. (Laughter) Or that frustratingly common, "But those Asian kids are just so cute." (Laughter) Or worse still, there are people who want to "save" a child by ensuring that they are raised in a Western culture and a Western religion, which is just straight-up racist. (Applause) In my situation, the US government, during the '50s and '60s, had placed American Indian children with white parents in order to "assimilate" us. Colonizing and systematically erasing a culture - obviously not good reasons to adopt. (Laughter) So, of course the right answer is, is that you want to adopt for the child's sake and put your own interests and benefits to the side. Prioritizing in the best interest of the child means that you will provide them food and clothing and shelter. But you'll also provide them mental and emotional well-being. All of us have a very human need for identity and belonging. And you can be the best parent in the world, but that adopted kid is going to wonder where they came from. And you are the gatekeeper. You can choose closed adoption with its sealed records and its severed ties or open adoption, where relationship with birth family is supported and encouraged. Now, I get it. Open adoption in our either-or culture is understandably terrifying. Because we are dichotomous, things are either good or bad, or black or white, or right or wrong, and children are either yours or mine. But there is a whole world of possibility between yours and mine. And it starts with transracial adoption, and studies actually show that this is a better outcome for the transracial adoptee. So, what would this look like? Let me give you an example from New Zealand, a country where open adoption is standard. You have Tasha. Tasha is from India. She's in New Zealand on a visa. She is young, single, and pregnant. She belongs to an ethnic group that is unaccepting of unmarried mothers. She feels that because she has no family support and she has no social network to help her raise her child, the only option she has available to her is to place her daughter for adoption. You have Mary. Mary is a white woman. She and her husband have a child of their own. She hears about Tasha's story, and she agrees to adopt Tasha's daughter with the understanding that Tasha will have an active role in that child's life. As a consequence, Tasha sees her daughter every two weeks. She has a phone call with her on those weeks in between. The whole family, including Tasha, gets together and celebrates all birthdays. They celebrate all holidays together. Tasha's daughter is going to be 12 years old this year, and she never has to wonder who her birth mother is or what she's like or what her culture is like because she's living that experience every day. That is an example of the adoptive family bringing the birth family into their circle. Let me give you an example of the birth family or the birth community bringing the adoptive family into their circle. It's called customary adoption, and it's practiced by indigenous people worldwide. In customary adoption, the adoptee and the adoptive family parents are invited to participate and observe ceremonies and activities and events and gatherings that teach the child who they are, where they come from, and why that's important, with the whole idea being that that child will now have support in both worlds. Five months ago, I became a grandmother for the second time. (Applause) And I understand that need to keep your child safe and protected. It feels so urgent and overwhelming. But sometimes, in order to protect your child, you have to put your own interests and fears to the side, you have to look at that child and look into their future, you have to look deep into their future and ask yourself, "What does this child need in order to live and to thrive in this world?" Adoption is an act of superhuman generosity. But the generosity can't stop as soon as the papers are signed. If the birth family or the birth community requests to play a role in that child's life, honor that. And trust that love is not a finite thing, that there will be enough love for your child to love their birth parents as well as you. Because only when these two families come together in the best interest of the child, will that child have a great future. Thank you. (Applause)