Sunday, November 27, 2011

... I want you to understand why she can't belong to you

Fictional letter written from an attorney of the Cherokee Nation (Annawake Fourkiller) regarding the welfare of a child (named Turtle) adopted to a white woman (Taylor, non-Cherokee):

"It's difficult, I know, for non-Native people to understand the value of belonging to a tribe, but I know you care about problems Turtle will face on her own.  I appeal to you on these grounds.  Adopted Native kids always have problems in adolescence when they're raised without an Indian identity.  They've gone to school with white kids, sat down to dinner every night with white parents and white siblings, and created themselves in the image of the family mirror.  If you ask them what they think about Indians, they'll recall Westerns on TV or doing Hiawatha as a school play.  They think Indians are history.

If these kids could stay forever inside the protection of the adoptive family, they'd be fine.  But when they reach high school there's enormous pressure against dating white peers.  They hear ugly names connected with their racial identity.  If you think this kind of prejudice amongst teenagers is a thing of the past, think again.  What these kids find is that they have no sense of themselves as Native Americans, but live in a society that won't let them go on being white, either.  Not past childhood.

My boss thinks I'm crazy to pursue this case, but I have to tell you something.  I used to have a brother named Gabriel.  We grew up wearing each other's jeans and keeping each other's secrets and taking turns when our uncle asked, "Who made this mischief?"  Gabe was my ayehli, my other wing.  When I was ten, our mother was hospitalized with alcoholism and other problems.  Social workers disposed of our family: my older brothers went with Dad, who did construction in Adair County.  I stayed with my Uncle Ledger.  And Gabe was adopted by a family in Texas.  No one has ever told me why it was done this way.  I assume they thought my dad could handle grown, income-earning sons, but not Gabe and me.  As for Gabe, probably the social workers knew a couple who wanted a little boy -something as simple as that.  He wrote me letters on fringe-edged paper torn out of his ring-bound school notebooks.  I still have them.  Texas was hot and smelled like fish.  His new parents told him not to say he was Indian at school, or they would treat him like a Mexican.  He asked me, "Is it bad to be Mexican?"

They put him into the Mexican classrooms anyway; his parents were bigots of the most innocent kind, never realizing that skin color talks louder than any kid's words.  He failed in school because the teachers spoke to him in Spanish, which he didn't understand.  The Mexican kids beat him up because he didn't wear baggy black pants and walk with his hands in his pockets.  When we were thirteen he wrote to tell me his new Mom had closed the bedroom door and sat on the foot of his bed and said quietly he was letting his new family down.

When he was fifteen, he was accessory to an armed robbery in Corpus Christi.  Now I only know where he is when he's in prison.

You said, the night we met, that I was only capable of seeing one side of things.  I've thought about that.  I understand attachments between mothers and their children.  But if you're right, if I have no choice here but to be a bird of prey, tearing flesh to keep my own alive, it's because I understand attachments.  That's the kind of hawk I am -I've lost my other wing.

I wonder what you are giving Turtle now that she can keep.  Soon she's going to hear from someone that she isn't white.  Some boy will show her that third-grade joke, the Land O' Lakes Margarine squaw with a flap cut in her chest, the breasts drawn in behind the flap, and ask her, 'Where does butter come from?' On the night of the junior prom, Turtle will need to understand why no white boy's parents are happy to take her picture on their son's arm.

What does she have that will see her through this into peaceful womanhood?  As a citizen of Turtle's nation, as the sister of Gabriel Fourkiller, I want you to understand why she can't belong to you."

Pigs in Heaven by Barbara Kingsolver