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The brutal past and uncertain future of Native adoptions

May 16, 2023 at 10:00 p.m.

Chris Stearns has two distinct memories from his childhood in the late 1960s. The first is somewhat hazy: a crowded New York City picnic for white families who had adopted Native American boys and girls, somewhere at a hilly park. Stearns had never seen so many people -- he was an only child in a Colonial-style house that backed onto a golf course in South Jersey -- and the event was overwhelming.

The other recollection is much sharper. One day, he was paid a visit by a man his parents called Chief Sunrise, who arrived at the front door wearing an eagle-feathered headdress and the white buckskin regalia of Plains Indians. His parents ushered Chief Sunrise into the family living room, where he took a seat on the angular modern couch. Then he turned to the young Chris, perhaps 4 years old, and drew him near. He sang a song, offered a blessing and went on his way.

These events, however well-intentioned to honor Stearns' Native American heritage, had another effect: They reinforced to the child that he didn't fit in the all-white world of his parents. "That feeling of not belonging was a pretty common thread for a long time," said Stearns, now 58. "I didn't look like the other kids, and I couldn't really identify with them, either. I was always just itching to be somewhere else."

Stearns was among the last of the hundreds of thousands of Native children in the United States who had been systematically removed from their families and culture. In the 19th century, long after the first conquest of the tribes, federal officials routinely sent Native children to boarding schools to forcibly assimilate them. By the time Stearns was born, in 1964, those schools were being phased out, but the government continued to separate families by placing Native children in white adoptive and foster homes. After a decade of pressure from Native activists, Congress finally put an end to the removals with the passage of the Indian Child Welfare Act of 1978, a law that sought to keep Native children with their families, tribes, and Native communities.

The future of that law is now in doubt. A white Texas family hoping to adopt a Native child has challenged the statute, arguing that it requires social-service agencies to discriminate on the basis of race. Oral arguments before the Supreme Court late last year made national headlines in a legal confrontation that, among other things, pits the desires of non-Native parents against the rights of a people targeted for extinction by European settlers.

A ruling in the case is expected this spring, and could undo decades of efforts to keep Native children with Indigenous families.

The origins of the landmark law can be traced to dueling advocacy groups. Their offices were just blocks from each other near Midtown Manhattan.

Around the time that Chief Sunrise was offering blessings to a young Stearns, a politically active Queens College student named Bertram Hirsch had just taken a job as an assistant at the Association on American Indian Affairs, a nonprofit agency operating from an office at 28th and Park. It was 1968, and Hirsch was spending most of his workday researching the land claims of Alaska Natives at the New York Public Library.

But that year, an urgent civil rights case diverted the attention of the small staff. The tribal chairman of the Devils Lake Sioux in North Dakota had called about an alarming incident. White county welfare officials had tried to remove a Native toddler from the care of the tribal grandmother who had raised him since birth, with the aim of placing him with a white doctor and his wife.

"They barged in without any due process and tried to take the kid," Hirsch recalled recently. "He was crying and hanging onto her and they still tried to take him because they said at 62, she was too old to be caring for a child. It was outrageous!" This injustice set Hirsch on a path that would define his career.

Such treatment of Native parents and caretakers by white social workers was not uncommon, but the Devils Lake Sioux were among the first to fight back publicly. Members of the tribe, which is now called the Spirit Lake Tribe, traveled to New York for a news conference at the Indian Affairs office arranged that summer.

A telegram alerting journalists to their arrival was clear about what they would report: "Child snatching from American Indian parents and coercion by starvation threat are charged against welfare agency by mothers delegation coming from a North Dakota reservation." At the afternoon meeting before reporters, the Devils Lake group, mostly women, described the fear of tribal children, who hid in the woods or under their beds whenever they saw the approaching cars of county welfare officials.

"White social workers were using their standards to judge how a child should live," said Hirsch, who is now 76. "Were there conditions of poverty on Indian reservations? Yes -- we're talking about poor parts of the United States. But was there abuse? Almost never. But because the social workers weren't used to seeing extended families in the same household, or seeing a little kid run around barefoot, they'd categorically declare 'neglect.'"

Over the next two years, Hirsch, who continued to work at the Indian Affairs agency once he entered New York University Law School, was asked to find out how widespread these removals were. By the end of 1969, his research revealed a stunning statistic: At that time, between 25% and 35% of all Native children had been removed from their families and communities.

"It wasn't just this isolated case in North Dakota," he said. "It was epidemic."

Hundreds of those removed Native children, including Stearns, had been swept up in a government program that was being run just blocks away from Hirsch's office. In 1958, the federal government's Bureau of Indian Affairs had contracted with the Child Welfare League of America, based in Manhattan at the time, to administer what would become the Indian Adoption Project.

The project's aim, according to internal documents at the time, was intended "to stimulate adoption of American Indian children by Caucasian families on a nationwide basis" and to evaluate them in comparison to the adoptions of other minority children. Today, such an idea sounds profoundly misguided, but it served some powerful interests. In the postwar years, the number of middle-class, mostly white parents who wished to adopt outstripped the number of infants surrendered for adoption by a wide margin. Some white couples, frustrated by yearslong waits to adopt children who looked like them, became interested in adopting nonwhite children, and Native children proved especially appealing.


Popular media promoted the idea. Glowing articles in newspapers (including The New York Times) and magazines fueled interest in the Indian Adoption Project, and similar programs that had proliferated elsewhere.

A 1965 story in Good Housekeeping lauded the arrival of a Native boy at the home of a Staten Island couple; the article included the street address of the Child Welfare League of America. The agency had been so overwhelmed with queries -- 1,500 from the magazine's readers alone, more than six times the number it had received in previous years -- that a civil servant claimed in a follow-up article a year later, "You've caused more havoc in the United States Post Office than Santa Claus!"


The program was immensely popular in New York, which was already the center of a robust and lucrative adoption marketplace. Of the 395 Native children the Indian Adoption Project placed in white homes, the largest number, 74, were in New York. Another 29 were in New Jersey, including a Navajo boy who was placed in the care of Dr. Thornton Stearns and his wife, Patricia Stearns.

Chris Stearns, now an attorney and Washington state representative in suburban Seattle, was born to an unmarried Navajo mother in Los Angeles who had little option but to surrender him at birth. After he spent two years in foster care, he was matched with the Stearns family of Riverton, New Jersey. Stearns recalled that his adoptive parents tried their best to give him a sense of his heritage. It would be years before he realized that Chief Sunrise was not dressed remotely like a Navajo. Still, what he was missing -- his culture, language, and people who looked like him -- hovered around him like a heavy fog. And the discussion of how or why his parents had adopted a Native American child was off limits. "It was never, ever, a topic of conversation," Stearns said.

For Hirsch and scores of Native activists demanding self-determination for tribes, the issue of Indian child removal was very much front of mind. In 1972, Hirsch became counsel for the Association on American Indian Affairs, and the stark statistics his organization had gathered led to a galvanizing moment, especially for the Native women who were behind the grassroots movement.

"What was happening on Indian reservations was cultural chauvinism, pure and simple," Hirsch said. "They weren't doing the same thing to white poor folks."

Hirsch set to work, helping draft what would become the Indian Child Welfare Act. It established federal standards for removing Native children from their homes, and it required that priority to place them be given to Native families in order to reinforce the child's tribal identity. After years of lobbying by Native activists, the law was passed in 1978.

In the decades since, child welfare agencies have praised the law as a gold-standard practice for its role in preventing unnecessary government intrusion, protecting family relationships, and preserving cultural identity.

"It is our right as Indian nations to raise our children," said Sandy White Hawk, founder of the Minnesota-based First Nations Repatriation Institute, which serves Native people affected by adoption and foster care. Native communities, she said, have large extended families who work together to bring up children. "When a child is ripped from us, there is deep grief for everyone in our communities who has the responsibility to raise it."


White Hawk and her own relatives experienced this loss in the 1950s after she was taken from her family on the Rosebud Indian Reservation in South Dakota and adopted by white missionaries. In the 1980s, she reunited with her family and tribe, and has worked as a child welfare advocate since. "This law has helped us return home," said White Hawk, who is also the author of "A Child of the Indian Race," a memoir. "It has helped us to reclaim our spiritual wealth as Indian people."

For Stearns, the road to connect with his Navajo self was long and uneven. Growing up in an evangelical Republican household, he had limited exposure to his culture. A painting of a Navajo boy holding a lamb hung in the living room where he was allowed to watch "The Brady Bunch," "Sesame Street" and a handful of other G-rated shows. Music had even tighter rules. Glen Campbell was on the approved list, but John Denver was not. "His long hair made my mom suspicious," Stearns said.

Stearns said that his parents, who are both dead, never hid his adoption, and were proud that he was Navajo. On trips to New York City, the family would visit the National Museum for the American Indian in Upper Manhattan to look at the Heye Collection, which at the time had the world's largest exhibition of Indigenous artifacts. A copy of "Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee" rested on the coffee table.

"They were never in it to break up a culture," he said. "They were in it to show the love they had to a kid." But Stearns could never breach a more personal chasm. "Whenever I asked about how I wound up with them, or who my mom was, there was just silence."

While the elder Stearnses were reluctant to discuss Chris' past, they were clear about their desires for his future. Their dreams of his becoming a doctor, like generations of Stearns men before him, were dashed when Chris struggled in chemistry. But he did go to law school at Cornell University, where he found a Native community and politics that spoke to him. He grew his hair long, and traded the blue blazers of his youth for denim shirts. He joined Hobbs, Straus, a Washington, D.C., law firm that represents tribes, and he eventually settled in Seattle. In 2022, he was elected as a state representative from Auburn, where he lives with his wife, who is Tlingit.

In the early 2000s, Stearns obtained his original California birth certificate. Decades-old secrecy laws in many states, including California, prohibit adoptees from accessing their original birth certificates. Stearns had to petition a judge to receive his, which arrived with some cryptic documents hospital social workers had written about his early days.

"It was the weirdest feeling in the world, holding this 8-and-a-half-by-11 piece of paper that says, 'This is who you are.' I was so relieved. And I was so scared." He learned that his mother had come to Los Angeles as a teenager from a small Navajo town as part of the Indian Relocation Act of 1956, a federal assimilation policy that encouraged Native people to leave their reservations for vocational training in cities. In Los Angeles, she worked as a dental aide and became pregnant by a Navajo man.

Stearns had no luck tracing the common Navajo names on the documents, and for years let his search for his birth parents go fallow. But he recently resumed it, and hopes to find them, if they are still alive. "I guess I had a lot to work through," he said.


Stearns believes the Supreme Court's ruling on the Indian Child Welfare Act will reverberate across America's tribal communities. It is no accident that the word "race" does not appear in the original law; the argument at its core is built around tribal sovereignty and the preservation of Native communities. "For Native people, family is the most important thing -- to be raised by your aunts and uncles along with your parents and grandparents," he said. "That kinship, that clan system, determines everything."


Many advocates believe that the Indian Child Welfare Act case represents a grave threat to greater Native rights. Amy Lonetree, a professor of history at the University of California, Santa Cruz, and a member of the Ho-Chunk Nation of Wisconsin, is wary. "The argument before the Supreme Court is not just about this one law," said Lonetree, who teaches Native American history. "It is about the future of Indigenous nations."

Hirsch, whose life's work may be significantly undone in a single Supreme Court ruling, is also waiting. "Upholding it should be the goal for everyone who believes Native families should continue to exist," he said. "And if you recognize the legitimacy of Indian tribal existence."

"But will this court?" Hirsch added. "It keeps me up at night."

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

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