Excerpt: Bitterroot

The following is an excerpt from Bitterroot: A Salish Memoir of Transracial Adoption (Nebraska, 2018) by Susan Devan Harness. 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. Visit her website and follow her on Twitter.


As an American Indian transracial adoptee, I have to be entirely honest with myself: I have so much shame. The shame comes because living in white America hurts. Being rejected by my tribal people hurts more. There is an anger that builds from the rejection and that anger turns inward because where else can it go? I can’t fight the masses; I’ll lose even more.

I’m tired. I’m tired of carrying this burden of nonbelonging. It’s not really mine to carry. It belongs to my birth family, who opted not to do what was required to keep us out of the system. It belongs to child-placement policy experts, who think removing children and erasing their past by erasing information about their birth family and then placing them in the midst of a society whose history promotes a barely veiled hatred toward indigenous people will produce healthy, happy, and stable children. It belongs to my adoptive father, who didn’t question the racism that surrounded me and didn’t protect me when it entered our home in his alcohol-driven tirades. It belongs to my tribe, who refused to offer “welcome home ceremonies” because, as one tribal member put it, we’ll muddy the waters by bringing our white wives or white husbands to the reservation. It belongs to American Indians who see us as people seeking our birthright because we are trying to get something for nothing: the free health care, cheap housing, a tribal job. We are not interested in those things. We are interested in knowing who we are, where we come from, and who we are related to. We want to learn and know our culture. We want legitimacy that these same Indian people have been given. But that burden should be heavily carried by white America, who can now pretend that, because we are being raised in a white, middle-class family, everything will be okay. For many white Americans, history and its consequences have no meaning. But right now I alone am carrying this burden and the emotional landslide has begun.

It sounds bad, but maybe I need things to fall entirely apart to rebuild a stronger me.

As an update, the Salish-Kootenai Tribal Council did provide a welcome-home honoring, in October of 2019. I hope they provide it to all adoptees and fostered children who have been lost in the system of child welfare. It is the beginning of healing.

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