With federal protections for Native children in jeopardy, two local Indigenous women discuss growing up with non-Native guardians

    The Riverton Peace Mission’s online discussion about the Indian Child Welfare Act last week highlighted the experiences of two local Indigenous women who were fostered or adopted by non-Native families before the federal law was put into place.

    Since 1978, ICWA has given Tribal nations “sole authority (to) determine what happens with children who belong to their Tribe,” RPM co-chair Chesie Lee explained at the beginning of the Thursday event.

    But before the law was enacted, “large numbers of Native children were being separated from their parents (and) placed outside of their families and communities – even when fit and willing relatives were available,” according to the National Indian Child Welfare Association.


    “Congressional testimony documented the devastating impact this was having upon Native children, families, and tribes,” the association says. “The intent of Congress under ICWA was to ‘protect the best interests of Indian children and to promote the stability and security of Indian tribes and families.'”


    Both of the women who shared their stories Thursday said growing up in non-Native homes impacted their sense of identity.

    “We didn’t know who we were,” said Clarisse Harris, a Northern Paiute from the Big Pine Reservation in California who has lived in Ethete for decades.

    Harris and her younger siblings were sent to live with white foster parents when she was 10 years old, and she said their guardians did a good job making the children feel like “part of (the) family.”


    “We did everything like everybody else,” Harris said, recalling 4H activities, long bus rides to school, family celebrations and trips throughout the region. “But that was not who we were. … We were Native Americans. And we should have been told that.”

    The foster parents “didn’t try to change us,” Harris noted, and “we weren’t abused or anything,” so “compared to some people (we) had it pretty good.”

    The “only thing” missing, she said, was “access” to information about their Tribe.


    “No one in the home or in the community that we lived in ever talked about it,” she said. “We (didn’t have) anyone to say, you know, this is what you do, this is what your Tribe does, or anything like that.”

    ‘Two worlds’

    When she turned 18, Harris returned to live with her biological family, and over time she learned more about her Tribal community.

    Now, she says she is able to “walk in two worlds.”


    “I know both sides,” she said. “And I choose the Native side. I can make that choice. (And) that’s the way I raise my kids.”

    Harris’ biological children are enrolled members of the Northern Arapaho Tribe, and before they became teenagers, the family decided they should move to the Wind River Reservation so they could be closer to the community there.

    “(My kids) learned how to be Arapahos, and the language and the ways,” Harris said. “That was important. … It’s important that our people know where we’re from (and) who we are.”

    She makes sure the same community connection is available for all of the Arapaho children she has fostered “on and off” for the past 40 years.

    “The children that I have in my homes, they all know they’re enrolled Arapahos,” she said. “(They) know that they’re Native Americans.”

    Those messages are re-emphasized in the local schools, which are “a lot” different now than they were when she first moved to Fremont County, Harris added.

    “Everything is slowly changing to reflect Native American culture,” she said, referencing lessons on Indigenous languages, dress, dances and songs. “Forty years ago, they didn’t have that. (But) it’s the core of the schools now.”

    ‘A Lamanite’

    Carol Harper of Riverton said she was “impressed” with Harris’ ability to “walk (in) two worlds” – a skill Harper has begun to develop later in life.

    “I’m on my own journey now … to understand my Native roots and my heritage,” Harper said. “After all these years I’m really trying to define myself.”

    Harper was born in Fremont County to a Native American and Hispanic woman who gave her up for adoption to a white family in Riverton when Harper was still an infant.

    Her adopted parents allowed her to visit with her birth mother and other Native relatives on the reservation when she was a baby, Harper said, but when she got older, they decided it would be “too confusing” for her to maintain those relationships.

    They did not take the same steps to shield her from the confusion she experienced as a Native American member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, where she said she was “programmed to believe” that she was a Lamanite – a class of people defined in the Book of Mormon as “dark, filthy and loathsome.”

    “That was very, very confusing for me,” Harper said.

    She also had to contend with the fact that some of her adopted relatives were “very racist against Natives” and other minority groups – opinions that were handed down to her adopted mother “by default.”

    “My mom had a hard time with me,” Harper said, describing multiple instances when her adopted mother physically and emotionally abused her in the home. “She would say she was going to beat the Indian out of me one way or another. (So) I just relented, and I conformed.”

    Harper went to college at Brigham Young University, and she got married in the Salt Lake Temple to an LDS man who also was physically abusive.

    She later divorced her husband and then left the LDS church.

    Around that same time, Harper also received a call from her adopted mother, who “tearfully apologized for the abuse that she perpetrated throughout my childhood.”

    “And I forgave her,” Harper said. “But I obviously haven’t forgotten about it.”

    She explained that her childhood experiences, both at home and at church, had “devastating” and lasting impacts on her sense of self.

    “That religion stole my identity,” Harper said. “I feel like I’m a baby again, trying to get my identity back with my Tribe.”

    She’s also interested in learning more about her ancestors of Hispanic and Welsch descent, Harper said, prompting Harris to point out that every child in the foster or adoption system should have access to information about their biological background, no matter where they’re from.

    “(They) have the right to know that,” Harris said, urging the guardians of Native children, in particular, to “take it upon” themselves to “provide that baby with what it needs to be a Native American,” regardless of the outcome of the ICWA case next year.

    To learn more about ICWA, click here.


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