Adoption didn’t solve the ‘Indian Problem’

An author recounts how 1960s policies ripped apart families and communities, including her own.


Susan Harness with her adoptive mother Eleanor Woods Thies in a 1961 photo.
Courtesy Susan Harness

Memoirs are written to document lives. Bitterroot: A Salish Memoir of Transracial Adoption is no exception. I was an American Indian girl adopted by a white couple in the early 1960s. In the mid-20th century U.S., the Bureau of Indian Affairs saw transracial child placement as a way to solve the “Indian Problem.” Instead, such assimilation policies ripped apart our families and communities, until the strands that were “us” came dangerously close to unraveling.

My birth mother was a “successful” outcome of such policies. She moved like liquid into and out of her children’s lives, disappearing for days, weeks, months at a time, with no one knowing where’d she’d been. Rumors circulated that something had happened at her boarding school that caused her to wander away, to become an alcoholic, to not be a functioning mother. She had nine children, and three of us were removed by social workers and placed with three separate families, hidden from each other by bureaucracy.

Growing up in Montana, I always felt a sense of hostility. Only later would I understand that it was an accusation: I was Indian and therefore part of the Indian Problem, which was defined by alcoholism, substance abuse, violence, suicides, poor health, high death rates, low literacy rates and “worse housing than city slums.” I felt stupid, inept and “less than” in the white world; I felt shame. I’ve since learned that other Indian adoptees experienced these same feelings. They didn’t materialize out of thin air: We were taught to be hated in a society with a deeply embedded social memory of our assimilation efforts, or their ultimate failure.  

Andrew Jackson’s Indian Removal Act of 1830 made us objects to be moved at will. The act relocated the Cherokee, Chickasaw, Choctaw, Creek and Seminole from their traditional homelands in the American Southeast to Oklahoma Territory, so 25 million acres could become available for white settlement.

Because we resisted Manifest Destiny, we are remembered for the Indian Wars, which occurred between 1866 and 1890, when the U.S. Army fought over a thousand battles against Western tribes, bent on subjugating them.

We are remembered for not being white enough. The Indian Bureau-run boarding schools tried to address this, requiring English Victorian-style clothing, teaching us trades to turn us into landowners and farmers and “thrifty” housekeepers. We lived in dorms, sharing towels, beds and diseases. When death came, we were buried in cemeteries on school grounds.

Left, Indigenous girls leave for jobs in Los Angeles in 1956. Right, a 1950s Bureau of Indian Affairs relocation brochure.
Courtesy National Archives and Records Administration

We are remembered for being poor and costing the government too much money. The Termination Act was aimed at the Flatheads, Klamaths, Menominees, Potowatomies and Turtle Mountain Chippewas, designed to end all federal responsibility, allowing “emancipated” members to achieve the American Dream. The Relocation Program promised us access to well-paying jobs in nearby cities. But we lacked the skills for those jobs, and cultural isolation and poverty made it worse. It was a harsh reality, and many of us found ways to escape it.

We are remembered for being too broken to raise our own children, losing them to social services at a phenomenal rate. In the U.S., by 1974, approximately a third of American Indian children had been placed into non-Indian homes. Our adoptions were closed, so our original birth certificates were amended and sealed. We were not supposed to find our way home. I did, though. And I realized that assimilation policies had effectively created a new “us” and “them.” I didn’t fit in; I was too white to be Indian and too Indian to be white, lacking my tribe’s language, tradition, and kinship knowledge. After finding my birth mother, I understood her shame at losing three children to the system. I also became aware of the level of physical and mental survival the reservation, where I didn’t live, required.   

Adoption didn’t solve the “Indian Problem.” Its weight simply shifted to our small shoulders. No one told us “we” represented “them.” We had to find that out for ourselves. Some of us are still looking. Bitterroot is a roadmap.

Susan Devan Harness, author of Bitterroot: A Salish Memoir of Transracial Adoption is a member of the Confederated Salish Kootenai Tribes, a writer lecturer and cultural anthropologist living in Fort Collins, Colorado.

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