Looking for Lost Bird: A Jewish Woman Discovers Her Navajo Rootsby Yvette Melanson, Claire Safran
In this haunting memoir, Yvette Melanson tells of being raised to believe that she was white and Jewish. At age forty-three, she learned that she was a "Lost Bird," a Navajo child taken against her family's wishes, and that her grieving birth mother had never stopped looking for her until the day she died. In this haunting memoir, Yvette Melanson tells of being
In this haunting memoir, Yvette Melanson tells of being raised to believe that she was white and Jewish. At age forty-three, she learned that she was a "Lost Bird," a Navajo child taken against her family's wishes, and that her grieving birth mother had never stopped looking for her until the day she died. In this haunting memoir, Yvette Melanson tells of being raised to believe that she was white and Jewish. At age forty-three, she learned that she was a "Lost Bird," a Navajo child taken against her family's wishes, and that her grieving birth mother had never stopped looking for her until the day she died.
Read an Excerpt
She was a birdlike Navajo woman, spry and smiling, her hair pulled back from her face and woven into a salt-and-pepper braid. She was dressed in a long skirt of black velveteen, high fashion for reservation aunties. I met her on my first trip to Arizona, when newspaper and television reports were spreading the word about a Jewish woman who was really an Indian. In that moment, I was still full of doubts and questions, still fighting the idea that I might be an Indian, still unsure of what that might mean. At that point, everything I knew about Indians had been learned from John Wayne movies.
I had so many questions, so much to learn, so much to catch up on.
The president of the Navajo Nation, the largest of the surviving Indian nations, had been told about me and had checked the evidence. He'd invited me to come to Arizona with Dickie and the girls, to be welcomed back into the tribe, to meet my Navajo family and then to be flown back to Maine-all in two dizzying weeks.
The woman smiled, showing a gold tooth that glinted in the sun. She told me to call her Aunt Despah and then, on the fourth day of my visit, she pulled me away from the rest of the relatives who had gathered at the ruins of the old family ranch.
"Come, come," she insisted. Clutching my hand, she led me across a flat stretch of desert to show me the exact place where I was born. It was a pile of broken sticks now, but once it had been a three-sided lean-to set at the edge of a cornfield.
My mother had been harvesting ears of blue corn when the labor pains began. They came too suddenly, too quickly for her to walk the mile back to her home. Instead,Despah, my mother's kid sister, helped her to the shelter of the lean-to. My father found them there and then, spurring his horse, rode off to get Aunt Carrie, my mother's older sister.
By the time they returned, the pains were coming sharper and closer together. Helped by her sisters, my mother was standing up, in the old Navajo style of childbirth. She held tightly to the main support of the lean-to, an upright railroad tie, hoping that gravity would be her friend. My father waited outside, chanting prayers and keeping an eye on the two little daughters who had been with my mother.
Finally, I was born. Her sisters told my mother to lie down and rest, but she shook her head; she felt another life within her. A short time later, as Despah remembered, my brother was born. It was the first twin birth that anyone could recall in Tolani Lake.
"Your brother was dark, like most of us, with a small birthmark on the left side of his face," Aunt Despah told me. "You were white, very white, with a birthmark on the middle finger of your left hand, and another one on your foot." I had never given much thought to those two dark circles, which I always thought of as "beauty marks," but they are still there.
Aunt Despah marked a spot close to the remains of the lean-to. "Right here," she said. "We buried your umbilical cord right here." She was gripping my hand. "It was our way of connecting you to your home. It was to make sure that you would always come back to this place."
Something stirred within me. Flesh and blood. Powerful symbols. Scientists think that migratory birds find their way across thousands of miles by instinct, following the gravity pull of the North and South Poles. And Lost Birds like me? Are we drawn by a different gravity, a guidance system of our own?
Now, mile after mile, driving west in an uncertain van, I felt the tug. I was being pulled toward a strange land that everyone said was my home. This second trip was not just a visit. My daughters thought of it as a great adventure, but it was more than that too. It was a leap into the unknown, and it was supposed to be forever.
For as long as the grass shall grow? Is that what Indians would say? I was moving bag and baggage, heart and soul, husband and children. Oy vey, as my Jewish family used to say. Oy gevalt.
I concentrated on getting ready. All of my forty-three years, I have been a hard-headed woman, stubborn and logical, wanting a reason for everything. "Seeing is believing," I used to say. Navajos too are logical, but in a different way. For them, it begins by turning that old aphorism on its head. Believing, they kept telling me, is seeing.
That's what I was struggling to do. This trip was my Vision Quest. If things had been different, if I hadn't been stolen from my mother's arms, I might have made a Vision Quest as a teenager or a young adult. Over time, I might have made more than one. By tradition, I might have gone into the mountains, spending as long as four days in solitude, making do without food or shelter, fasting and meditating to connect with my inner spirit and with a vision of my deepest self.
Instead, I was doing it in a van, on the interstate. I had food and water but, traveling both by day and by night, not much sleep. I was in the middle of my crash course on who Indians were and who, therefore, I might be.
Meet the Author
Yvette Melanson was a stolen child who found her origins through the Internet. In her years as a Lost Bird, she served in both the Israeli army and the U.S. Navy. She has now begun a new life on the Navajo Reservation in Arizona. |
Claire Safran is an award-winning journalist and contributor to major magazines. She is the author of Secret Exodus, a former editor of Redbook and Coronet, and a past president of The American Society of Journalists and Authors.
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