This past weekend I was able to attend a screening of Daughter of a Lost Bird, a documentary directed by Brooke Pepion Swaney about two Native American transracial adoptees, Kendra Potter and her first mother, April Newcomb, at the Seattle International Film Festival (SIFF). Kendra is an actor who is often cast as Native characters in her acting roles. One of Kendra’s roles was as a Native transracial adoptee and the director, Brooke, was struck by the parallels. It is at Brooke’s suggestion that the two of them decide to document Kendra’s search for her first mother, April. The film was screened as part of SIFF and included a pre-screening performance by members of the Lummi Nation and a post-screening Q&A with Brooke, Kendra, and April.
April is the “lost bird” referenced in the film title. The original lost bird was Zintkála Nuni (whose name translates to “lost bird”), a Lakota girl adopted by a white Army general after her family had been massacred at Wounded Knee. The term has since been applied to Native Americans who were adopted or fostered into white families or boarding schools (though some adoptees critique the term “lost bird” because the children were not lost but taken).
The film begins, as most adoptee documentaries do, with “the search.” I’ve had conversations with many fellow adoptees about the ways the search and reunion in media about adoption is the predominant focus and how often the process (to me, at least) mirrors the process of adoption. There is the yearning, longing, desire, effort, and resources spent to connect and build/reunite a family; the anticipation and sheer difficulty of that process alone build to almost a fantasy of what we think happens when the reunion/finalization happens. Just as with the adoption finalization, what is lost in the focus on reunion is what happens afterward – that reunion is just the first part of the next phase of the adoption story.
Daughter of a Lost Bird delves into the post-reunion and though the story focuses more on Kendra’s process of exploring what it means to be Native American, we also learn about April’s story and experiences. Personally, I really connected with April’s story even though my own adoption experience was more like Kendra’s. The two of them demonstrate two common perceptions about transracial adoption. Kendra had an adoptive family who may not have done as much as they could have to affirm Kendra’s cultural identity but nonetheless provided a loving and stable middle-class life for her. April, on the other hand, experienced the opposite. Her white adoptive parents were abusive. April turned to drugs and alcohol to escape. For April, finding her Lummi father was incredibly healing, even as she also acknowledges that it is hard for her to feel like she has a sense of home. I thought about the adoptees in my study of adoption displacement and I see so many parallels – the abuse by adoptive parents, the years of self-harm as a result, feeling rejected by both families or communities, and struggling to feel like they belong.
Kendra says that finding April and her Native family “broke her.” I wondered how much of this was because Kendra’s assimilation into whiteness was a slower process of omission and erasure in comparison to the brutal way April’s adoptive parents literally tried to beat the Indian out of her. There is a heartbreaking moment in the film when Kendra acknowledges that she was the perfect embodiment of the goals of the Indian boarding schools and Indian Adoption Project to “kill the Indian, save the man” – she says she was saved, but as a result, is “a dead Indian.”
For me, the film really highlights generational trauma and ambiguous loss. I was glad to see Terry Cross, founding director of the National Indian Child Welfare Association, interviewed for the film. Terry urges us to remember that generations of systematic oppression, abuse, and cultural genocide leave a heavy toll on people. As much as Kendra may have known about the experiences of Native people in the U.S. prior to embarking on her search, it was largely theoretical. Part of the “brokenness” she references is coming to terms that her “happy adoption story” could only have existed because of the legacy of hundreds of years of oppression against Native people in the U.S.
At the post-screening Q&A, a very emotional viewer in the audience spoke up about her experience as a Native adoptee placed out of her tribe and the difficulties she had trying to connect with her community as a result. Kendra and April were mostly welcomed by their relatives, but many adoptees – like the woman in the audience – are not.
Daughter of a Lost Bird is a resource I recommend along with several others to better understand the history and context of child removal of Native children. Knowing about this history is critically important if you consider yourself an ally to adoptees. I also highly encourage non-Native adoptees to engage with the history of Native adoption in the U.S., Canada, and the Indigenous adoptions in New Zealand and Australia, all of which were government-sponsored efforts to eliminate Indigenous culture. Their stories and histories matter to all adoptees because the ways Native families and children were treated carried over and informed other adoption practices. Right now there is a systematic effort to reverse the Indian Child Welfare Act and several high-profile cases have been brought to or are in process of appealing to the Supreme Court. As a former child welfare worker, I view ICWA as THE BEST PRACTICE STANDARD for ALL CHILDREN.
Here are some of the other resources I suggest to learn more about Native American adoption in the U.S.:
- The documentary Blood Memory, featuring my friend and amazing advocate, Sandy Whitehawk. Sandy is the founder of First Nations Repatriation Institute and created Welcoming Home ceremonies for adoptees and former fosterees (and generously included non-Native adoptees)
- Bitterroot: A Salish Memoir of Transracial Adoption by Susan Devan Harness
- The work of Dr. Raven Sinclair (her work is from a Canadian context which had a similar history as the U.S.)
- The National Indian Child Welfare Association website. They have an online Indian Child Welfare Training available here.
- The Relational Worldview training series (I was part of developing this training) featuring Terry Cross, available at the Center for Advanced Studies in Child Welfare.
- Roxanne Dunbar Ortiz’s excellent book, An Indigenous People’s History of the United States.
- American Indian Adoptees blog
- Information about the Indian Adoption Project by the UpStander Project
Daughter of a Lost Bird will be available for public viewers May 5th on PBS through their America ReFramed series (the same series that hosts Deann Borshay Liem’s film on Korean adoption, Geographies of Kinship).