2019 High Plains Book Award Winner for the Creative Nonfiction and Indigenous Writer categories In Bitterroot Susan Devan Harness traces her journey to understand the complexities and struggles of being an American Indian child adopted by a white couple and living in the rural American West. When Harness was fifteen years old, she questioned her adoptive father about her “real” parents. He replied that they had died in a car accident not long after she was born—except they hadn’t, as Harness would learn in a conversation with a social worker a few years later. Harness’s search for answers revolved around her need to ascertain why she was the target of racist remarks and why she seemed always to be on the outside looking in. New questions followed her through college and into her twenties when she started her own family. Meeting her biological family in her early thirties generated even more questions. In her forties Harness decided to get serious about finding answers when, conducting oral histories, she talked with other transracial adoptees. In her fifties she realized that the concept of “home” she had attributed to the reservation existed only in her imagination. Making sense of her family, the American Indian history of assimilation, and the very real—but culturally constructed—concept of race helped Harness answer the often puzzling questions of stereotypes, a sense of nonbelonging, the meaning of family, and the importance of forgiveness and self-acceptance. In the process Bitterrootalso provides a deep and rich context in which to experience life.
About the Author
Susan Devan Harness (Confederated Salish Kootenai Tribes) is a writer, lecturer, and oral historian and has been a research associate for the Tri-Ethnic Center for Prevention Research at Colorado State University. She is the author of Mixing Cultural Identities Through Transracial Adoption: Outcomes of the Indian Adoption Project (1958–1967).
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I Wasn't Born; I Was Adopted
Billings, Montana, May 1974.
Two months ago I turned fifteen.
Now my father and I sit at the dining room table, watching the mists of rain drizzle against the pane of the large picture window. Our backyard is bordered by chain-link fencing. Pine trees stand sentry along the back edge, while rows of lilac bushes, alternating in purple and white, flank the yard's sides. Lilacs are my favorite flowers. I look forward to inhaling their pungent aroma, soft and sweet, carried on an evening's breeze. I look forward to their displays, floral cones that bend gently in their heft. But I, more often, look forward to their announcement of spring. It is quiet, this space between Dad and me, one of the few times we are able to sit in each other's company with relative ease. Dad's an alcoholic, prone to eruptions. I'm usually watchful, but today I'm relaxed. Unguarded. It just feels like a good day.
I stare outside and daydream, the dreams of a fifteen-year-old girl who misses her family. Against my wishes, a question sneaks out of my mouth and fills this tiny dining room with electricity, not the exciting kind but the scary kind. "What happened to my real parents?"
Dad's head snaps around. The pupils of his brown eyes have become tiny dark orbs, piercing me with their sharp gaze. The tendon of his jaw dances rhythmically, and within an instant I know I have asked the wrong question. My adoption and the reasons for it have always been actively avoided — until this moment, when time stops, and silence, awkward and deafening, fills the gaps. I'd asked Dad this question only once before, when I was six. Then Dad's reply was "They died in a car accident. They were both killed." It was an easy answer, straightforward to a child's ear, and the information remained unchallenged. Dad must have heard the need in my voice to know more, because his reaction became angry silence that deadened further conversation.
This time, however, the silence is gone, but the anger is audible in Dad's answer: "What do you mean, your 'real parents'?" I wince at the harshness of his voice as he emphasizes the word real. "We are your real parents. We raised you; we clothed you; we fed you; we educated you. You have a roof over your head because of us. Never forget that," he says, drilling the words home, quiet and measured. "We are your real parents."
His answer is concrete, the line drawn: the question is closed. But I am no longer a child who is content with easy answers, and now I resent him shutting me out. I pull air deep into my lungs, where it calms my nerves and brings my pulse under control. My life with him seems to be filled with land mines. This land mine, however, is particularly charged, and I work to deaden the explosion. "It's not that you aren't my parents," I say, my voice quiet, soothing, while my pulse beats like timpani in my ears. "But I'm talking about before. What happened to them?"
The eggshells beneath my feet are sharp and painful, and I don't know how far I'll get in finding out more about me, more about my life before. Dad might answer or he might shut down, and this conversation will be as if it had never happened. That's what I dread, because if that is the case, that door will never be opened again. So I sit across from him, hands in my lap, and wait patiently as he stares out the window. My own thoughts are thrown around as if in a storm. Perhaps he's ignoring me. Perhaps he's weighing his options. Perhaps he's forgotten the question altogether. But he casts a glance at me while he digs around in his sweater pocket for his familiar pipe and tobacco, and I take it as a positive sign. The odds are good that I'm going to get some kind of answer.
Dad has ritualized his pipe and tobacco; it is used to buy time. So I sit and watch while he packs the heavily grained cherry bowl with Sir Walter Raleigh, carefully tamping it down with his index finger until he is satisfied. Then, snapping a match beneath the dining room table, he brings the flame to the brown, wrinkled leaves and inhales deeply, so deep that his cheeks grow hollow and his face grows long, pulling until the embers burn fiery orange on their own. When he exhales, the smoke drifts in a cloud that dissipates throughout the room; the remainder curls out of his nostrils.
I used to be fascinated by the way his smoke curled, blue eddies that wound themselves around one another. I sought to produce the same effect the previous Christmas, when a friend and I sneaked out of her house and walked a half mile down the ice-laden road. We stopped near a copse of bushes, where I opened the pack of Salem menthols we'd purchased earlier at a nearby convenience store. I ran through the same ritual I'd seen my mom do and my dad do, before he switched to a pipe. Opening the wrapper, I unpeeled the small portion of the foil cover, carefully slapping the top of the pack against my palm, all performed in relative blindness; I'd never smoked before in my life. I extracted the smooth, white cylinder and placed it between my lips, where it felt foreign and plastic. Although there was no wind, I lit the match and cupped the flame, as I'd seen my parents do, and pulled in the smoke. It scalded my throat and assaulted my lungs, drowning them in a bluish haze. I coughed and tears ran, but still I tried to exhale the smoke through my nostrils, where it burned and singed my tender membranes. I tried smoking a few more times but gave up because it never got easier. Nothing was worth this much coolness.
But Dad's smoke from his pipe still captivates my attention, and I watch it swirl into itself, slow vortexes captured by invisible currents in the small dining room. After a few puffs he stares at the tabletop, his gaze unseeing, and sits quietly for many moments. When he looks up, he gives me a wry smile and shakes his head. Pensive, his voice becomes quiet, the menace gone. He sighs. "I wondered when this question was going to come up. I just didn't know what I was going to say." He pauses before he adds, "As you know, your parents died in a car accident."
My breath stops in my throat. The conversation I've most looked forward to, and dreaded, is actually happening. I work to keep my voice level, but it's difficult because adrenaline is taking over. "Where?"
"Near Missoula," he answers, returning his gaze to the window.
"How did it happen?"
"Drunk driving." He turns his head slightly and meets my eyes. "Happens all the time up there."
"Who was in the car?"
He gives me a blank look. I reframe the question: "Did I have brothers or sisters who were in the car when it happened?" What if I had siblings, but they weren't in the car? Suddenly my only-child status would change drastically! I hold my breath for his response. He pauses and looks out the window, sucking on his teeth while his brows furrow, calculating the amount of information he wants to share, the amount he wants me to know. "I don't know about brothers and sisters. I heard you had an uncle somewhere in Arizona. Phoenix, I think it was. But he was a drunk, a no-good bum. It's better you don't get a hold of him." He turns a warning gaze to me, his face set, his jaw hard. "He and his family would leech off of you for as long as you'd let them, and you have such a kind and generous heart, they'd realize they'd hit the mother lode."
Dad's description of Indians hangs in the air between us. He's not the only one who thinks this way. This perspective is held by so many people I know that it permeates my psyche: that's how Indians are; everyone knows that. Stories abound about people who've rented to a Native family. Within days there are thirteen relatives in the house; the place is trashed within a month. Or someone gets some money and suddenly the relatives show up, people who they've never seen before. Those stories are told by my classmates, my dad's friends, even in overheard conversations of strangers in restaurants. What is most shocking, however, is the fact that these people are so open about their bigotry; they are completely comfortable in these conversations, regardless of who might overhear them. My discomfort is palpable, but what can I do? I am isolated, an island in an angry white sea. Survival means silence; otherwise I know the anger will turn on me.
Dad stops talking, and it is my turn to stare out the window as I wonder what this uncle might look like. The yard fades away, and I see him, silhouetted against a saguaro cactus. He's a big guy, barrel-chested. He wears a black hat with a feather tucked in a beadwork band that encircles the crown. His black Western-style shirt has a pointed yoke and pearl snaps along the placket, and it is tucked into a pair of well-worn jeans, whose back pocket reveals a circular outline where his snuff can rests. I close my eyes for a moment and concentrate on his face, his round cheeks and dark skin; it is the same color as mine in the summer. But I can't see his eyes. They are hidden behind the dark-green lenses of a pair of aviator sunglasses. And just like every Indian I've ever seen in the movies, when he turns toward me he doesn't smile.
But I do. I like how this uncle looks.
I come out of my reverie and glance at Dad, who is still deep into his. "Where did you say they were buried, again?" I ask.
"Missoula," he answers.
My heart speeds up, and I lean forward. At least Missoula is in the same state. But I know if I show too much interest, too much emotion, this conversation will end. So I lean back in my chair and ask, in as much of an offhand tone as I can muster, "Where in Missoula?"
"I don't know," Dad says with a wave of his hand, irritation flooding his features, hardening his voice, turning his face to stone. I've pushed too far. So I say nothing while I sit and dig my nails into the palms of my hands, their pain invisible beneath the table. The silence stretches like taffy between us, interrupted only by the clock above Dad's head that ticks a steady cadence. Although it feels like hours, perhaps only five minutes pass before he finally sighs and shrugs. "One of the cemeteries in Missoula. I don't remember which one."
Adrenaline. It's a beginning, the first piece of the puzzle. The information he's just given to me churns, and I am now only half-aware that he's fished his Swiss Army knife from his jeans and is extracting the smallest blade. He scrapes it around the bowl of his pipe and drops the burned contents in a nearby ashtray. A cemetery in Missoula. They would have records. There would be an obituary!
When Dad is finished and our eyes meet, I watch his smile become tight, forced. "Enough of this macabre talk. It's in the past, and it needs to stay in the past." He stares at me for a sign of acknowledgment, and I, the people-pleaser, nod. But after that I think of little else. I suppose it could be called obsessing, wondering about these ghostly people who live at the edge of my consciousness, what they look like, their mannerisms, their way of talking, their way of being. Imagining them. I am desperate for them to take shape. How can I make that happen?
That night, in bed, I look out the window and stare through the branches of our front-yard tree, at the stars that dot a black sky, each one representing a new, unanswered question. How did the accident happen? Was anyone else in the car? Brothers or sisters? Was I in the car? If I was and they pulled me from the wreckage, did they take me to wherever they took kids to be adopted? And where was that? And if there were brothers and sisters, who survived, and where were they? Did the aunts and uncles take them? And if they had, why didn't they take me?
Adoption, by the very act itself, is defined by tragedy: death, the inability to be a parent (as in the case of my birth mother), and, in my case, the inability to be a whole and complete child. People typically don't want to discuss tragedy, including my mom. When I was younger, and couldn't get an answer from Dad, I'd ask Mom, who would deflect my questions, her discomfort at my curiosity visible as she waved her hand, dismissing the subject: "You're too young to ask questions like that," or, "You don't need to hear about the bad things that happen to people. You should hear only about happy things." These statements coded my mind to see adoption as a subject to be avoided. Wanting to please, I complied; I was silent. But as I would learn in years to come, an incestuous relationship lives between people pleasing and adoption.
My parents aren't the only ones uncomfortable with the questions. Friends, and even other adults, are uneasy when I bring up the subject. Typically, my interest, my forthrightness of discussion, is met with awkward silence or blank stares; both reactions essentially say that some events are better off unexamined. I interpret their silence as judgment: Why isn't your family enough? Why can't you just be thankful for what you have?
It's not that I'm not thankful; it's that I feel only half-full. The full half contains what I know: my memories, my sense of self, and how I fit in or don't fit in. The other half is divided. One portion is what people tell me: what kind of tribe I belong to or how I looked so sturdy but was so light when my mom first picked me up. The remaining portion is everything that had happened before, the things no one can tell me, because no one in my current life has any knowledge about them, whatsoever. And the older I get, the more aware of the emptiness I become.
When I go to friends' houses, I listen with rapt attention to the stories their parents tell, of when their darling little daughter took her first step at twelve months of age, falling so many times before she got to the couch, or when their son spit out the canned peas in horror at his first attempt at solid food. And they laugh, both parents and children, their eyes bright and animated. And although my smile is good-natured, it is pulled tight, so tight that my lips hurt. I hurt because I've never experienced these events, these stories, these bits and pieces of a lived memory informing me that I existed in peoples' realities before I was two years old. And then I wonder where this whole other family lives, this family who knew me before I was two, who knew things about me no one else knew.
My friends take their known pasts for granted. I, on the other hand, feel the absence of my past like a cold wind. Their life is an entire novel, whereas mine picks up on chapter 3, when the primary characters have already begun to take shape.
When I was six I had a pretend memory, a short clip of manufactured reality. In that memory both of my parents were Native. My mother's hair was long and black, and it tickled my face as she leaned over the gate of my crib and smiled. My father's hair was cropped short, his teeth white and straight against his brown skin. He didn't lean as far over.
I know exactly when and why I created this memory: to fit in with the lives of Christy and Jennifer, my two closest friends in first grade, who rode the same bus to school. We sat three to a seat, huddled together, protective of the secret space we created in our postures, and talked about how we came into the world — or, rather, how they did. I think someone asked where I was born, to which I probably replied, "I wasn't born; I was adopted." That's typically how those early conversations started. But I didn't stop there. Especially when the girls leaned forward, their eyes wide, waiting expectantly for me to continue. And the story came so easily in the spotlight I suddenly found myself in. I was a star.
"Why were you adopted?" Christy asked.
"My parents died in a car accident," I replied nonchalantly, as if I had told this story every day.
"Do you remember your parents?" That was Jennifer. She was almost breathless.
"Barely," I said, my voice low. It was almost like telling a ghost story. They leaned forward even more. "I have only one memory," I continued, but paused for effect and watched as they glanced at each other, ready for the secret. That's when I told the memory I had just constructed moments ago. I finally had a past, just not a real one. But at least I wasn't left out. I smiled with their sharp intake of breath, throwing their hands over their mouths as if to keep in the secret. My story was exotic, and I became an instant celebrity.
Of course, the real story is that, because I was removed from my family when I was eighteen months old and adopted when I was two, I have no recollection of my parents. None. But six-year-olds can just make stuff up to fill in the blanks. Back then filling in the blanks wasn't called lying; it was called "imagination."
That same spring Dad's drinking had gone from a few times each day to nonstop, extending far into the early morning hours. This is when he felt most creative. How many mornings I would be awakened at three o'clock, when Dad, filled with a good dose or two of vodka (glasses, not shots), would rev up the saw in his workshop and cut deer antlers into little pieces of art that he called the "Laughing Man." The Laughing Man consisted of two forked antlers that mirrored each other. Vertical, with inverted curves, they formed the visage of a person, bending slightly at his torso, whose arms were raised into the air and whose legs were spread. He'd then cut a small piece of antler, shaving off the edges to form a head, which he'd attach at the upper fork. No other features or characteristics defined this being. There was a certain beauty in their simplicity.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Bitterroot"
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Table of Contents
List of Illustrations Acknowledgments Prologue 1. I Wasn’t Born; I Was Adopted 2. Coming-of-Age without a Net 3. Coping Mechanisms 4. Lost Bearings 5. Sliding 6. Fort Laramie 7. Institutions of Higher Learning 8. Coyote 9. How Rez Cars Are Made 10. Thicker Than Water, Thinner Than Time 11. In Memory 12. Too White to Be Indian, Too Indian to Be White 13. This Once Used to Be Ours 14. Integration 15. Custer’s Ghost 16. Vernon 17. Will You Be Here Tomorrow? 18. Gifts 19. Losing the Master Key Epilogue