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White Earth says 'Welcome home'

"Reconnecting with our roots" is a phrase often used to indicate anything and everything from researching one's family tree to rediscovering religious faith.

"Reconnecting with our roots" is a phrase often used to indicate anything and everything from researching one's family tree to rediscovering religious faith.

At the first-ever White Earth Adoptees Welcome Home Gathering, held over the weekend at Mahnomen's Shooting Star Casino, that phrase took on a slightly different context.

The roughly 200 adoptees and family members that gathered at the casino's event center over the course of those two days were trying to reconnect with a part of their family history that had literally been lost to them.

"Over the last 125 years, one-third of all Indian children born, nationwide, have been raised by non-Indian families," said Andy Favorite, a past historian for the White Earth Band of Chippewa and current instructor at White Earth Tribal & Community College. "That means they were adopted out or raised in foster homes off the reservation."

Between 1941 and 1978 -- when the Indian Child Welfare Act was passed -- 35 percent of all Indian children were removed from their homes and placed in orphanages, white foster homes, or adopted into white families.

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"This weekend has been an effort to welcome those people who were adopted out back home to our reservation, to our communities and families.

"There was a time," Favorite continued, "when the government literally took these kids and put them in boarding schools -- sometimes on the reservation, and sometimes off."

In fact, at one time White Earth was known as "The Great Experiment," he added.

"It was their goal to make us (the White Earth tribe) Christian, civilize us and make us agrarian (aka farmers)."

The Indian agents who were placed in charge of the reservations by the U.S. government had something known as "comity law" on their side -- as in, the Indian agent could put forth "any law he saw fit that would facilitate our civilization, Christianization, or make us farmers."

Another such law forbade any tribal member from setting foot off the reservation without the written permission of the Indian agent.

"They had the authority to remove (Indian) children from their families and place them into foster care or adoption," Favorite said.

And thus one-third of all native children were removed from their families, their communities, their cultural heritage.

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The adoptee gathering at Shooting Star was organized as an invitation for those who had been displaced from their cultural and family heritage "to come home and be a part of what it means to be Indian, to be Anishinaabe," Favorite said.

"It's been very emotional for many of them," he said. "Each family has a story."

One of those families is that of Sandra White Hawk, founder and current executive director of the First Nations Orphan Association.

White Hawk, who was in attendance at the weekend gathering, is one of those who was taken from her Lakota family when she was but a baby -- 18 months old, to be exact -- and placed with a white missionary family.

According to her biography, available at the First Nation Orphan Association Web site, her adoptive parents were originally from Illinois, but moved to South Dakota to "work with the Indians." Considering her to be born of a "pagan" race, her family taught her that her only hope for redemption was to assimilate to white culture.

After losing the family farm due to the premature death of her adoptive father, the family was thrust into the very poverty that she had been taken from the reservation to escape.

Her teen years marked the beginnings of alcohol and drug use that would blossom into a full-blown alcohol addiction in adulthood.

But White Hawk managed to graduate high school, join the U.S. Navy, get married and have two children. Nevertheless, the scars of childhood abuse and alcohol addiction would continue to haunt her.

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In 1988, she went home to the Rosebud, S.D., and the reservation where she had been born. She discovered she was one of nine siblings, all but one of whom had been adopted out or sent to live with foster families. Her birth family welcomed her back, and over the next 20 years, she embarked on a journey to reclaim her heritage and spirituality, and to heal the wounds that separation from her family had wrought.

White Hawk had a vision of a song being written for adoptees, "an honor song that would help those looking to find their way back."

"So I talked to an elder about it, and he asked Jerry Dearly to make the song," White Hawk said Sunday.

"I came up with the words to tell our orphans, 'be strong. Our Indian ways are strong, so listen to the Indian ways. If you listen well, you'll learn how to live your heritage," Dearly said, translating some of the lyrics to the unnamed tune, which was written in his native tongue (he is of Oglala Lakota heritage).

Once he had the words, Dearly said, "I had to figure out a tune. One morning, I was outside listening, and heard a bird singing this beautiful song -- that bird gave me the tune for my song."

Dearly gave the song to White Hawk in 2000, and together, they brought it to the gathering in Hill City, S.D., on June 21 of that year, which would become the first World Peace & Prayer Day. It has since become an annual event.

"That's where I sang the song for the first time," Dearly said.

From there, he assisted White Hawk in realizing an even greater vision.

"I had this vision to want to bring our people together for healing -- not just the adoptees, but everyone. Behind every adoptee is a mother, a father, grandparents," she said.

This led to the creation of the First Nations Orphan Association, an organization that can "network and assist adoptees, fostered individuals and their families. It was co-founded by White Hawk and Chris Leith, a Prairie Island Dakota elder and spiritual advisor to the National Indian Child Welfare Association.

In the years since, this organization has held similar gatherings in other communities -- but this weekend was the first such gathering at White Earth.

"I hope this becomes an annual event," Favorite said. (White Earth Tribal Chairwoman Erma Vizenor echoed this sentiment in her welcoming remarks on Saturday, noting that she would like this to be the first of many such gatherings.)

White Hawk's family ties also brought her to another individual who was "invaluable" during this past weekend's proceedings -- her cousin, LeMoine LaPointe, a program director for the Healthy Nations Program at the Minneapolis American Indian Center.

According to LaPointe, it was a chance encounter with White Hawk's fiancée at the American Indian Center that caused him to reconnect with her.

"We went out to dinner together, and I reaffirmed my relationship to her," he said. "We're just beginning to know each other."

White Hawk asked him to help her with planning "a series of adoption forums" -- even before she knew about his work as a group facilitator with the Center.

"I've seen some powerful events occur around these gatherings -- I've seen rediscovered relationships, seen people find their relatives for the first time. And even those who didn't find their relatives... I've seen them walk away with peace of mind, and a lightened heart," he said.

"It's a healing experience for many of the participants. I've had a couple of people approach me at this gathering and say they had found some of their relatives. They were elated. There is a happiness to be found here... the kind of spiritual and cultural support that will take many of these adoptees through difficult times, and help them maintain peace of mind and a strong heart."

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