Colonization and Adoption – A History

This first appeared in Gazillion Voices, November 2014, Issue 16

 Image courtesy of Pansa at
Image courtesy of Pansa at

Recently, after giving a presentation on American Indian Transracial adoption, I was asked a question.   “Where do you think you’d be now if you hadn’t been adopted?” Without pausing, the man who asked the question answered for me.  “I bet you wouldn’t be giving presentations with a college education.”  He was a lawyer who handled private adoptions.  He was right; I probably wouldn’t be where I am now.  However, the price I—we—have paid to be here has been high.

So what is the price I paid?  That we, as adoptees have paid?   We have become second class citizens in our own countries; we are labeled, we are defined, we are barely accepted, we are rejected.  We are many times lost in what it means to be in-between.  And it all began with colonization.

Colonization and Assimilation

Colonization is one country’s attempt to have influence over another.   It’s about territory and the resources that territory can provide.  It’s about wealth and governance, and it’s always about force; the memory of domination embeds itself in the language, history, and traditions of both the subjugator and the subjugated.  It’s about establishing power, controlling power, keeping power.  It’s about economic, political, or ideological interests that can be forced upon so-called weaker societies.   In our present era of globalization, those interests can become intertwined like a Celtic knot, where it is nearly impossible to pick the strands apart.    

However, colonization is not the same everywhere.  Belgian colonization is different from Spanish colonization is different from Dutch colonization is different from Great Britain’s colonization.  What they have in common, though, is their roots in imperialism.  I’d like to discuss colonization by Great Britain, because their orchestration of it in North America, Australia, and New Zealand illustrates how thorough they were in breaking apart societies.

Like the imperialists who’d landed on foreign shores before them, Great Britain’s colonizers collected vast amounts of wealth through the extraction of resources, such as minerals, metals, or pelts, or produced raw materials, such as tobacco or sugar cane.   Imperialists used slave labor, which cost nothing, maximizing their economic benefits.  Colonists, on the other hand, established settlements, thereby ensuring that the extraction, collection, and transportation of these newly acquired assets weren’t interrupted.  As the colonists built villages, established farms, and subsisted in an environment rich in land and the wealth it provided, they also gained military, economic, and political strength, thereby establishing colonial governments. 

In the U.S., wars, assimilation efforts, re-education, and removal became the colonial tools to wrest power away from indigenous people for over four hundred years.   Over the past sixty years, those same wars have moved from the battlefield to the courtroom, revolving around   who won and who lost. Whose social memory remains intact and whose is subsumed—if a social memory is allowed to exist at all. Whose traditions persist and whose are replaced.  Most importantly, these battles determine who has legitimate say over the land, its resources, its society, its children? When the wars cease, the frameworks of the colonized societies have been shredded, ripped, and torn apart to the point that the scraps that are left are almost unrecognizable.

I and thousands of others like me are remnants of those scraps – children who were removed from our indigenous families and placed through adoption into the families of the dominant culture.


A Memory

There I am, in the third grade, 1967, saying the Pledge of Allegiance to the Flag, that symbol of red, white, and blue, under which so many of our people died. Since the establishment of the US government, its military has led over a thousand campaigns against us, from sea to shining sea, in their zeal to take the land.  It was up for grabs, evidently, because we weren’t using it appropriately.

But I am not aware of all of this.  I am only aware that afterwards our teacher asks us to open our song books to a certain page and after she plays a few of the opening notes on the piano, she raises her arms and invites us to sing.  And I do.  With gusto.  “In fourteen hundred and ninety two, Columbus sailed the ocean blue.”

The rest of the lyrics are long gone in a memory crusted over with storm-blown sand.  But now, decades later, I wonder how I must have appeared, that little American Indian girl who sang so gloriously about the man who is remembered for two things: “discovering America” and being the inaugural figure responsible for our genocide, the physical and cultural slaughter that has dogged American Indians for 522 years.  He is held accountable of all of this by merely setting foot on a piece of land that he mistook for the East Indies.


Although the actions of Christopher Columbus and so many others like him aren’t new (he was only representing larger interests), they have been devastating, especially for the indigenous children in the historically colonized nations of the Americas, Australia, and New Zealand.  Over the last sixty plus years, children in these nations have been caught in the colonial maelstrom.  They have been moved and re-moved, relinquished and adopted, rejected and fostered, re-located, re-placed, rehomed, revised, remembered.   The storm still exists for children today as politics, ideologies, and economics collide in brutal wars, leaving behind destroyed communities, impoverished families, and lost individuals.  

But what I think is interesting and ironic is that the descendants of those imperialists and colonists are adopting them with almost a blind fanaticism.  


Assimilation – A Brief Discussion

Assimilation programs are meant to replace one culture with another rather than adding another’s cultural practices and beliefs into one’s own.  The assimilation programs put into place by the U.S. government didn’t just want indigenous people to be the “same as”; they did not want indigenous people at all.  These programs were meant to force indigenous societies to be more like the dominant culture, except of course in important areas of land ownership, education, leadership, self-determination, cultural cohesiveness, and access to membership in ruling class. 

In the U.S., a few assimilation programs stand out because of their mass application and effectiveness: the Indian Removal Act of 1830, Indian Education, the Indian Termination Act of 1953, and its separate, but closely related piece of legislation, the Indian Relocation Act of 1956.[i]  Last, but not least, was the Indian Adoption Project, which ran from 1958-1967.  It was a social experiment to see what happened when Native children were removed from their reservations and homes and placed with white families. 

The Indian Adoption Project[ii] and other similar programs were by far the most tragically successful policies to date.  These programs didn’t remove children for a few years, as in the case of education where they could return home.  The children were removed for a lifetime, and information about birth families remained in closed files, which could only be opened with a court order.  Many courts still are hesitant to get involved.  With no knowledge of our parents, our communities, our tribes, there were almost no avenues by which we could find our way back to our homes.  The legal veil that lay between us and our blood families also lay between our adopted families and our tribes.  Adoptive families sought this veil for protection should our families and our tribes seek our return.  

Yes, adoption was successful because we became assimilated.  As one adoptee told me, “I am the Whitest Indian you are ever gonna meet!”[iii]  We were placed in White families and raised in White communities, attended White churches who taught us White rules, and attended White schools where a colonizing history was the only one we knew.  That history we were taught framed us dirty, war-mongering savages, little more than animals – which was why we needed to be Civilized. 

History.  That beautifully engraved box that is responsible for holding a society’s social memory wrapped as Truth.  The symbols of social memory are seen in commemorations, media, advertisement, memorialized heroes, and vanquished enemies.  In colonizing societies this is an instilled memory.  It’s exaggerated, fabricated, but rarely wholly true because the memory is always told from the viewpoint of the victors. 

Adoption policy became popular because disheartening statistics negatively framed American Indians as “Other”.  In 1962, the average reservation family had an annual income of $1,500; unemployment on the reservation was between 40-50%, schooling was typically eight years, and 90% of households lived in homes far below the minimum standard of comfort, safety, and decency.  More than half of these homes were one to two room dwellings.  80% had to haul or carry water for household use, and infant death rate was 70% higher than the rate of infants in the population as a whole.[iv]  Colonization created these statistics, which came to define “The Indian Problem”.  Adoption was designed to interrupt the problem, except it interrupted us – personally, psychologically, and physically.  Many of us bought into a self-destructive history, into the legitimization of White privilege, into the idea that somehow the Indians brought this on themselves.  In our confusion, we dulled the pain through alcohol and drugs, we turned to sex in our quest for love, and some of us took ourselves out of the pain, permanently. 

Those of us who survived asked no questions, until we were older.  That’s when we realized that we were almost just like “them”.  Except our skin was too dark, a reminder to those around us that, even though we acted “White”, our true membership was “Indian” – an ethnic group who, through their active resistance to land-grabbing measures, had become classified as enemies of the state.  But now being classified as “Indians”, we found that when we turned to go home, we weren’t members there either.  We’d lost our traditions, our language, our culture.  Our legal adoptions had taken us from one family and placed us into another.  We were no longer even legally remembered in our families and communities.

We became lost in between.


Legalities and Apologies – Similarities Across Nations

The adoption programs/projects of the mid-20th century were done under the guise of child welfare.  The ideological argument ran that if an indigenous child was taken away and placed with a White family – a better family – illiteracy, alcohol abuse, and other dysfunctions that came to define the “Indigenous Problem” could be fixed.  Once fixed, we could be reconstructed in the dominant culture’s image, Christian metaphors aside.  These adoption policies and their context in history are surprisingly similar in North America, Australia, and New Zealand.[v]    

In the US, the Indian Adoption Project, a handshake agreement between the Bureau of Indian Affairs and the Child Welfare League of America, ran from 1958-1967 and consisted of closed adoptions – meaning the adoptions could only be opened by a court order.  William Byler, in his report, The Destruction of American Indian Families, estimated that almost a third of American Indian children had been placed with White families by 1972.[vi]  Although Shay Bilchik, Executive Director of the Child Welfare League of America, gave a formal apology on June 1 in 2001 at the National Indian Child Welfare Association’s meeting[vii], no apology has been issued by the Bureau of Indian Affairs or the US government in general. 

In Canada, Aboriginal children were removed between 1960 and the mid-1980s at phenomenal rates. The act became known as the “Sixties Scoop”.  According to Dr. Raven Sinclair, the Sixties Scoop was “not a specific child welfare program or policy…[but] one segment of a larger period in Aboriginal child welfare history.”  Approximately 70% of these children were adopted into non-Aboriginal homes.  Although Canada’s Prime Minister Stephen Harper issued a formal apology on June 11, 2008 for children’s removal from their families to residential boarding schools, no apology has been given for the Sixties Scoop.[viii]

 In Australia, the wide-scale removal of Aboriginal children, who were placed into missions, institutions, or non-Aboriginal homes between 1930 and 1970, became known as the Stolen Generation.  It’s estimated that at the height of child removal and placement, nearly a third were placed into missions or institutions.  According to the Bringing Them Home Report, approximately 17% were adopted into non-Aboriginal homes.  In May 26, 1998, the first National Sorry Day was established, a day that commemorated the first anniversary of the Bringing Them Home Report.  By 2001, each state and Territory government had issued a full apology to the Stolen Generations.[ix] 

In New Zealand, The Adoption Act of 1881 transferred the care of orphaned, abandoned, or uncared for children from the state to individual couples or families.  However, in Kinship Foster Care: Policy, Practice and Research[x], Joy Swanson states that the Child Welfare Act of 1925 “displayed little regard for the extended kin networks of Māori children.”  Maria Haengas-Collins writes in her thesis, Belonging and Whakapapa: The closed stranger adoption of Maori children into Pakeha families, that, although exact numbers are not known, “it is known that a significant proportion of closed adoptions involved children who could claim Maori ancestry through at least one of their birth parents.  The majority of these children were placed into Pakeha homes.”[xi]  As of yet, no formal apology has been issued by the government for children’s forcible removal from Maori families into White families.  Recently, the Minister of Justice Judith Collins claimed that she was “not convinced that a formal apology was the best way to address everyone’s concerns.”[xii] 

Indigenous children, in each of these cases, were removed without the Native communities’ input, knowledge, or agreement.  In his book Far From the Reservation, David Fanshel addressed the need to return the power of determining child welfare practices back to Native populations.  

“It seems clear that the fate of most Indian children is tied to the struggle of Indian people in the United States for survival and social justice.  Their ultimate salvation rests upon the success of that struggle.  Whether adoption by white parents of the children who are in the most extreme jeopardy in the current period—such as the subjects of our study—can be tolerated by Indian organizations is a moot question.  It is my belief that only the Indian people have the right to determine whether their children can be placed in white homes.  Reading a report such as this one, Indian leaders may decide that some children may have to be saved through adoption even though the symbolic significance of such placements is painful for a proud people to bear.  On the other hand, even with the benign outcomes reported here, it may be that Indian leaders would rather see their children share the fate of their fellow Indians than lose them in the white world.  It is for the Indian people to decide.”[xiii]


Image – Making the Visible Invisible

Adoption, caught up in the issues of colonialism and capitalism, is murky at best.  Where do morals, values, and ethics fit into what has become a globalized industry?  Who truly benefits?  The children?  A family?  A community?  A society?  Or does it benefit industry organizations that are so finely tuned to marketing what Laura Briggs has come to define as the “mother-and-waif images,” designed to pull at heartstrings and wallets?  In her article “Mother, Child, Race, Nation: The Visual Iconography of Rescue and the Politics of Transnational, Transracial Adoption,” Briggs notes that these Madonnas-with-children images are haunting.  They create a need to answer pleas for help while at the same time hiding images that address those needs in more viable and sustainable ways.  They hide:

“…international aid agencies with building, trucks and personnel; development projects that might redirect water supplies; military check-points that disrupt (or redirect) the distribution of basic foodstuffs; currency devaluation being debated in a parliament or congress; starving people who live in houses, towns or even shanty towns (as opposed to the outdoor spaces and tents of refugee camps); children playing games, people sleeping; elderly people; white people; men; people wearing warm clothing against the cold; those ill with typhus or other opportunistic infections; people laughing.” 

The mother-and waif images, Briggs argues, do well at directing attention “away from structural explanations for poverty, famine and other disasters, including international, political, military and economic causes.  It mobilises ideologies of ‘rescue’.”[xiv] 

Rescue, need, abandonment, destructive social mores, child movement, and trafficking are the fallout of colonizing and imperialistic global practices.  The fallout for adoptees is experienced as burdens, which we carry alone for being different, separated from, “othered” within the boundary of “us”.  We are tired of labels of who we are or are not, who we should be, or should not be. 

But mostly, we are tired of wondering who we really are.  

Right now, we only know we are the products of colliding societies, cultures, and nations.


[i] For more information about these assimilation programs, read David Fanshel’s Far From the Reservation (1972)Anthony Wallace’s The Long Bitter Trail: Andrew Jackson and the Indians (1993); The Indian Removal Act of 1830. Essential Documents in American History, EBSCO; Ward Churchill’s Kill the Indian, Save the Man (2004); Jon Rehyhner and Jeanne Eder’s American Indian Education: A History (2004); Donald Fixico’s Termination and Relocation: Federal Indian Policy 1845-1960 (1986) as well as Urban Indian Experience in America. (2000).

[ii] See Fanshel, David. 1972. Far from the Reservation.  DeMeyer, Trace and Patricia Cotter-Busbee, 2012.  Two Worlds: Lost Children of the Indian Adoption Projects. CeateSpace Independent Publishing Platform.

[iii] Harness, Susan, 2008.  Mixing Cultural Identities Through Transracial Adoption: Outcomes of the Indian Adoption Project, 1958-1967. Edwin Mellen Press, Lewiston.

[iv]  See Fanshel.  p. 22

[v] See Armitage, Andrews. 1995.  Comparing the Policy of Aboriginal Assimilation: Australia, Canada, and New Zealand. UBC Press, University of British Columbia.

 [vi] Byler, William, The Destruction of Indian Families.  Steven Unger, Ed., Third printing. Association on American Indian Affairs, New York.

[vii] Bilchik, Shay. 2001. Apology from Child Welfare League of America.  Document.  National Indian Child Welfare Association Conference, April 24, Anchorage, AK

viii] Sinclair, Raven.  2007.  Identity Lost and found: Lessons from the Sixties Scoop.  First Peoples Child and Family Review. 3(1): 65-82.

[ix]Dudgeon, Pat and Tanja Hirvonen.  (2014) Dark Chapters in Australian History: Adopted Children from the Stolen Generations.  (Accessed 10/21/14).

[x] Ernst, Joy Swanson. 1998. Kinship Foster Care: Policy, Practice, and Research. Oxford University Press

[xi] Haengas-Collins, Maria. 2011.  Belonging and Whakapapa: The Closed Stranger Adoption of Maori Children in Pakenha Families.  Thesis.  Massey University, Aoteraroa, NZ

[xii] Wilkerson, Maggie and Anna Coffey-Noall.  No date.  Unraveling Secrets and Lies and New Zealand’s adoptions.  (Accessed 10/21/14)

[xiii] See Fanshel. p.341

[xiv] Briggs, Laura. 2003.  Mother, Child, Race, Nation: The Visual Iconography of Rescue and the Politics of Transnational and Transracial Adoption.  Gender & History. 15(2):179-200

You may also like