Colonialism, Race, and Child Welfare

Note: Excerpts of this essay are drawn from my article manuscript, “Generations Stolen: Opposite Futures and the Elimination of the Native,” in Race, Law and the Postcolonial (Routledge, 2015).

My second grade teacher was Native American. Her son and I were best friends during elementary school. I do not recall which tribe she belonged to, but I remember being drawn to this aspect of my friend and his family. The following year was one of my favorites because that was the year Mrs. Glennon introduced me (and the class) to Native American history. Thinking back, it makes me wonder if she was Native, as well. Before I was Asian American, a person of color, an adoptee, a scholar, or anything beyond a third-grader, I most identified with the Native American experience. Of course, I knew the experience of Native Americans was much different than my own experience of being adopted from Hong Kong, but I could not help but think about the convergences of relocation and being forced to change.

In the history and narratives of U.S. adoption, Native American and Indigenous children are too often forgotten. Their absence from popular adoption knowledge points to the various effects of settler colonialism, as well as the tropes of the “tragically disappeared” or always “vanishing” natives. Additionally, the passage of the Indian Child Welfare Act in 1978 that gave greater sovereignty to Native American tribes in dealing with foster care and adoption (nearly stopping Native American adoptions by non-Native families) has seemingly made Indian adoptions a non sequitur. The reality is that adoption and child welfare are still great concerns for Indigenous communities. Gazillion Voices contributors such as Susan Harness and Raven Sinclair have insightfully and eloquently written about the history, issues, and their experiences as Native American and First Nation adoptees.

It is my contention that all of us in the adoptee and adoption community, as well as the general public, should be concerned with these issues. Black feminist scholar Jacqui Alexander has repeatedly shared that “we must be fluent in each other’s histories.” On top of this, Native feminist scholar Andrea Smith argues, “Coalition work is based on organising not just around oppression, but also around complicity in the oppression of other peoples as well as our own.”[1] We must know each other’s histories and not be complicit in the oppression of those outside our immediate group. Certainly, Gazillion Strong is heading in this direction and we would be smart to follow.

You might be wondering, what can an Asian American adoptee offer on the topic of Indigenous adoptions? Why write about this? Are there not more qualified folks? Here, I will follow

White anti-racist activist Tim Wise who explains, “Fact is, most of the important scholarship about racism and white supremacy has come from people of color. … The dangers of not speaking out as a white person are myriad: it allows whites to think racism is only a black and brown issue; it allows whites to dismiss the critiques of racism offered by people of color, precisely because they can be perceived as narrowly self-interested; and it allows whites to never have to examine their own conditioning or privileges.”[2] Wise waxes the truth. If you have not had a chance already, read Susan Harness’s cover story for this issue. The GV archive contains work by Harness and Sinclair. Yet, sadly, as Wise notes, calls for justice by one group are often dismissed as self-interested rather than concerns for all of us. To build on Wise’s explanation, it is also not the sole responsibility of oppressed groups to educate the privileged. This is why men should be at the forefront of dismantling patriarchy and misogyny; white people for racism; straight people for homophobia; etc. And it is why the adoptee and adoption communities that benefit from settler colonialism should know more about the concerns of Indigenous communities.

Part I: “A Structure Not an Event”

Stories of systematic removal of Indigenous children litter U.S. history, but the traumatic experiences and forms of state violence are not limited to the United States. Canada and Australia have equally disturbing pasts. The three stories begin with settler colonialism. The twist is that settler colonialism is not just a thing of the past. Australian scholar Patrick Wolfe contends that settler colonialism is “a structure not an event,” where “elimination is an organizing principle” that spans time.[3] From U.S. presidents (e.g. Washington, Jefferson, Jackson, and Theodore Roosevelt) and Supreme Court justices (especially John Marshall) to military officials (e.g. Sheridan and Chivington), quotes from iconic historical figures illustrate the combination of racial and settler colonial logics. Beloved president, Theodore Roosevelt, before he came into office, jokingly stated, “I don’t go so far as to think that the only good Indians are dead Indians, but I believe nine out of ten are, and I shouldn’t like to inquire too closely into the case of the tenth.”[4]

Genocide was not the only means for the “logic of elimination.” As Wolfe notes, assimilation can be a more effective form of elimination than genocide because it does not blatantly affront the notions of modernity and the rule of law.[5] Weary from constant resistance by Indigenous tribes, the U.S. government enacted new laws and policies such as the Dawes Allotment Act and blood quantum to promote assimilation.[6] Residential schools were also a significant component of the shift in strategy from war to civilization through assimilation.[7] Richard Pratt, an Army captain, established the Carlisle Indian School at the Carlisle Barracks, Pennsylvania, in 1879, the first of its kind in the United States, as well as the model for the more than one hundred schools that followed. Misquoting General Phillip Sheridan, Pratt explained how his reasoning was slightly different from Sheridan’s logic: “A great general has said that the only good Indian is a dead one. … In a sense, I agree with the sentiment, but only in this: that all the Indian there is in the race should be dead. Kill the Indian in him, and save the man.”[8] With significant assistance from religious institutions, the U.S. government operated at least 150 boarding schools on and off the reservation for Native American children. At their peak in the 1970s, there were as many as 60,000 students.

Canada and Australia operated nearly identical programs of their own. Similar to the results from the U.S. Supreme Court’s Marshall Trilogy, Canada’s Constitution Act of 1867 and Indian Act of 1876 gave the Canadian federal government authority over First Nation tribes.[9] Canada employed a policy of “aggressive assimilation” by way of industrial (later called residential) schools that were church-run and government funded through the Department of Indian Affairs. Established in the nineteenth century, with the first opening in 1847 (decades before Carlisle), residential schools housed approximately 150,000 First Nations children. They reached a peak in 1931 with 80 in operation across Canada, the last one closing in 1996.[10] Duncan Campbell Scott, a well-known poet, but also the Deputy Superintendent General of Indian Affairs in Canada from 1913 to 1931, promoted the government’s assimilation policy, believing that Aboriginals were a “savage race” in need of “civilization.”[11] For Scott, the goal was to “award” First Nations people the vote as a strategy for killing Native culture because it involved relinquishing Indian status and dissolving their shares of Indian land title.[12]

The first school for Aboriginal children in Australia was established in 1814 in Parramatta, New South Wales, as the Parramatta Native Institution. Its aim was the “Educating and Bringing up to Habits of Industry and Decency the [Indigenous] youth of both Sexes.”[13] After an Aboriginal girl won a colony-wide competition in 1819, the Sydney Gazette Post declared that the school was an instrument of “civilisation and salvation of thousands of creatures, at present involved in gross darkness.”[14] Premised on the notion that children are easier to mold than adults, these parallel policies of assimilation aimed to diminish and eventually eradicate native culture after a few generations. Children were required to learn English (or French), convert to Christianity, and adopt American, Australian, and Canadian (Western European) culture that they would then pass on to their children. Children were given Anglo names and forced to cut their hair. Rules often prohibited the use of Native languages and cultural practices. Physical and emotional abuse was rampant, especially as punishment for breaking rules. Many children also suffered from sexual abuse. If and when children did return to reserves/reservations, they often lacked cultural knowledge to assist their families resulting in shame and self-hatred.

By the mid-1950s and 1960s, residential schools were also accompanied by adoption in all three countries when white care shifted from a white (man’s) burden to adoption that was framed as an act of reconciliation, humanitarian rescue, and love. The U.S. Indian Adoption Project, 1958 to 1967, was a joint effort that was funded by the Bureau of Indian Affairs and the US Children’s Bureau and administered by the Child Welfare League of America. It placed at least 395 Native American children in white adoptive homes. Hundreds more children were placed into non-Native families with its successor, the Adoption Resource Exchange of North American.[15] While the removal and adoption of Native children into non-Indigenous homes occurred, the U.S. government was also in the midst of wide-scale termination of tribes in which more than 100 Native tribes lost federal recognition.

In Australia, between one-tenth and one-third of all Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children were removed from their families from 1910 to 1970. During his 2008 apology, Prime Minister Kevin Rudd stated that up to 50,000 children were removed.[16] In Canada, Patrick Johnson called the era of Indigenous adoption the “Sixties Scoop.” The term arose from Aboriginal children literally being taken from their families as newborns often without knowledge or consent from mothers, families, or tribes by social workers at a disproportionately high rate (just as in the United States and Australia). Approximately one in three First Nations children were removed of which 70% were being adopted into non-Indigenous families in Canada, the United States, and other countries.[17] Both the boarding schools and adoptions underscore the overlapping ways in which the structure of settler colonialism and the logic of elimination through assimilation unfolded.

Part II: The Intimacy of Three Settler Nations and Six Continents

In her article, “The Intimacy of Four Continents,” Asian American literary scholar Lisa Lowe explores the connections between Europe, Africa, Asia, and the Americas (in the form of an emergent modern humanism and racialized division of labor) that brought Chinese indentured laborers to the West Indian colonies in the Caribbean.[18] Lowe critically investigates how knowledge is produced. Why do we not know about the history of these laborers, and why do we not think about the global connections? Her article inspired me to think about the connections among three continents that have removed Indigenous children from their families, homes, and communities. Further, the intimacy of three nations actually extends to six continents when we consider how imperialism has worked in concert with colonialism in the removal and transfer of Indigenous and non-Indigenous children across national and continental boundaries.

The reason for removal of Indigenous children was largely based on the desire for land. Assimilating Native American, First Nations, and Aboriginal peoples would ultimately allow settlers to gain access to land and resources. As Susan Harness suggests, U.S. settlers dehumanized Native Americans as “merely objects, broken and ill-fitting, that occupied space in inappropriate ways.”[19] Assimilation and civilization projects were merely alternative means (rather than annihilation) to this goal. The justifications for removal, however, are what I contend link Indigenous adoptions to other forms of transracial/national adoptions and the other four continents. On one hand, racialized and gendered notions of “uncivilized,” “savage,” “morally corrupt,” “culture of poverty,” and “dysfunctional family structures” for non-white families, tribes, and nations validated the reasoning for child removal and adoptions. White care through boarding schools and transracial/national adoptions were the social, political, and intimate solutions to these domestic and global threats. On the other hand, by the 1950s racial liberalism had emerged, turning ignored and undesirable Native American, black, and Asian children (and later Latin American and African children) into “adoptable” prospects. Adoption of non-white children shifted to notions of sentimentality, intimacy, and family-making that were previously afforded only to white children.

Continuing from previous discourse that was hinged on civilizing Native Americans, these mid-century adoptions were based on racial liberalism and what Mimi Nguyen calls the “gift of freedom.” Nguyen examines how this concept specifically applies to “grateful” Vietnamese refugees after the Vietnam War. She argues the gift of freedom is the gift of modernity.[20] I would add that freedom is freedom from violence in all its forms (war, poverty, patriarchy, institutions such as orphanages, and culture) and it includes the gift of an “opposite and better future.”[21] The gift of freedom is embraced because it pledges love, hope, life, and happiness.[22] However, Nguyen also explains that the gift portends a debt. But, who exactly is the gift-giver?

Adoption scholar Barbara Yngvesson suggests that the birth mother gives the gift of the child to the adoptive parents.[23] Yet, I contend that there are four exchanges. First, the birth mother/family offers the gift of the child and the adoptive parents are the recipients. Second, the birth mother/family offers their child the gift of a “better life.” But neither of these gifts can be repaid because the mother is rarely known. Thus, historically the most privileged gift in adoption discourse is the exchange in which the adoptive parents offer the gift of freedom, family, and home to their new child. The last gift-giver is America, the condition of possibility for freedom. In the Native American and Indigenous contexts, forcible removal seems incongruent with gift-giving, but symbolically colonial and racial logic has held, “give us your children and we’ll give them civilization and freedom.” The decontextualized intimate act of adoption and the symbolic gift of freedom, of course, attempt to erase the traces of settler colonialism and imperialism. And in this context, the adopted child, as the recipient, is forever in debt to both the family and nation, which is why so many adoptees have stayed silent when faced with isolation, alienation, loss, and trauma. Historically, the gift offered back is obedience, loyalty, love, and, to borrow from postcolonial critic Homi Bhabha, mimicry.

Part III: Colonial Mimicry

“From ‘forget who you are and forget me not’ to ‘know who you are and copy me not,’ the point of view is the same: ‘Be like us.’ The goal pursued is the spread of a hegemonic dis-ease. Don’t be us, this self-explanatory motto warns. Just be ‘like’ and bear the chameleon’s fate, never infecting us but only yourself, spending your days muting, putting on/taking off glasses, trying to please all and always at odds with myself who is no self at all.”[24]

“[M]imicry emerges as one of the most elusive and effective strategies of colonial power and knowledge.”[25]

The first quote from Trinh T. Minh-ha, a Vietnamese postcolonial and feminist scholar, describes the “native’s” relationship with the colonizer and is one of my favorites. When I first read it 10 years ago, I said, “This is me! I do this!” I tried to forget who I was (Chinese), yet never forgot who America was. Indeed, I strained to “be like [them].” I felt like a (failed) chameleon. The task of silencing myself and putting on masks, trying to “please all” produced “myself who [was] no self at all.” The chameleon’s fate—the attempt to achieve authenticity through mimicry—is one tie that binds Indigenous and non-Indigenous transracial/national adoptees together.

Postcolonial critic Homi Bhabha explains that mimicry “is the desire for a reformed, recognizable Other, as a subject of a difference that is almost the same, but not quite.”[26] Later he expands this to include “almost the same but not white.”[27] Thus, the colonial authority demands its colonized subject to mimic Western ideals of whiteness. But is also dependent on ambivalence and indeterminacy, which is to say successful colonial mimicry involves partial success and partial failure to be completely like the colonizer: “mimicry must continually produce its slippage, its excess, its difference.” Indeed, we colonial and imperial subjects—“orphans” produced by settler colonialism, war, military intervention, democratic liberalism, and global capitalism—are too often ineligible signifiers of (white) American.

Bhabha and Trinh’s ideas of chameleon fate and colonial mimicry help us understand why Indigenous and non-Indigenous transracial/national adoptees have historically found it extremely difficult to find belonging within their respective nations, communities, and sometimes even family despite efforts by some that have included rejecting their heritage and embracing whiteness. For Native American children in boarding schools this meant adopting Western ideals of nuclear family and gender roles. For nearly all transracial/national adoptees it meant losing a family, language, culture, and name.

Yet, for as “effective” (as a form of power) and “elusive” (as a goal) as mimicry is, its power is not totalizing against the colonized subject. Bhabha enlists French theorist, Jacque Lacan, who says that mimicry is not about “harmonization with the background” but rather it is “exactly like the technique of camouflage practiced in human warfare.”[28] In other words, mimicry can be subversive and disruptive when it slips into mockery, where the “observer [colonial authority] becomes the observed.”[29] Indeed, the very presence of the colonial Other disrupts the imagined and narrated coherency of the nation. Bhabha suggests that one reason that the nation is ambivalent is because it is always remaking itself, “[H]istory may be half-made because it is in the process of being made; and the image of cultural authority may be ambivalent because it is caught, uncertainly, in the act of ‘composing’ its powerful image.”[30]

Of course the adoption industry and the nation-state have tried to appropriate this unsettling ambivalence and difference through the less threatening practice of celebrating superficial multiculturalism. The most explicit example of appropriating culture (and seemingly rejecting the requirement of assimilation / mimicry) is through the emergence of culture and heritage summer camps that have sprouted across the country. Moreover, Indigenous and transracial/national adoptees who are “successful” have become the adoptee poster children[31] for racial inclusion. While assimilation and mimicry have allowed many Indigenous and non-Indigenous transracial/national adoptees to survive or even “thrive,” they were crucial psychological and social components to the structures of settler colonialism and white supremacy. By the 1970s, Native Americans, tribes, and a coalition of allies came together to reject the notion that children removed from Native families and reservations were being given a better future.

Part IV: ICWA and Apologies

After decades of boarding schools, adoptions, and disproportionate child placements into foster care, as well as pressure from Native tribal communities and organizations, Congress enacted the Indian Child Welfare Act of 1978 (ICWA). The ICWA created safeguards regarding the removal of Indian children by giving tribes authority over child welfare cases and through a preferred placement system. Separation from their family and culture while being placed in non-Native homes had deleterious effects on Indigenous children’s physical, emotional, psychological, and spiritual health in the United States, Canada, and Australia. While social scientific outcomes studies of non-native transracial (e.g. black and Asian) adoptions “definitively” reported—though many scholars have critiqued these studies— that such adoptions could work and were in the “best interest of the child,” many studies of Native American and First Nations children adopted showed the searing harm caused by such adoptions.[32]

Transferring power to tribal governments rather than states gave Indigenous people greater authority in preserving and promoting Indian child, family, and tribal welfare. Especially for the latter, ICWA recognized that nothing “is more vital to the continued existence and integrity of Indian tribes than their children.”[33]

Within the last few decades several non-governmental organizations have recognized this importance and apologized for their varying roles. For example, Canadian churches, with the first being in 1986 and the Catholic Church, the largest religious institution involved, finally apologized in 2009.[34] In 2001, the Child Welfare League of America apologized for its participation, admitting that that the systematic, forcible removal of Native children was “catastrophic and unforgivable.”[35]

While Australia and Canada do not have a law like the ICWA, their governments, unlike the United States, have acknowledged in whole or part their roles in the removal of Indigenous children. In 1998, the Canadian government established an Aboriginal Healing Foundation. It also has created commemoration initiatives and, in 2007, the “Common Experience Payments” as a form of reparations. Canada’s Prime Minister, Stephen Harper, officially apologized in 2008 for the residential school system (but notably not for the adoptions of Indigenous children into non-Indigenous homes).[36] In 1998, Australia established National Sorry Day, which has become an annual event with marches, speeches, and presentations.[37] Ten years later, just months before Canada’s apology, Prime Minister of Australia Kevin Rudd finally apologized for the Stolen Generations.

These apologies were a step toward truth and reconciliation, but they also reveal the structure of settler colonialism. Again, the United States has yet to apologize, and Prime Minister Rudd, after his apology, clarified, “We will not, under any circumstances, be establishing any compensation arrangements or any compensation fund, absolutely blunt on that.”[38] For the Canadian apology, Michael Kreb notes that in addition to ignoring adoptions, it separates the violence of the residential schools from the “wider colonial project of the Canadian state,” which “further obscures a true understanding of why this crime was committed.”[39] In other words, as Patrick Wolfe would say, the apologies frame these removals as a tragic event or time period rather than part of the settler colonial “structure” and the logic of elimination.

Part V: The Continued Assault on Native Families and Sovereignty

The issues of Native American, First Nations, and Aboriginal child removal are still vital concerns for Indigenous communities. In 2012, an Australian Institute of Health and Welfare report stated that removal of Aboriginal and Torres Straight Islander children increased 400 percent from 2,785 to 13,299 in the 15 years since the groundbreaking Bringing Them Home report of 1997. Although they only represent 4.6 percent of the Australian population, they constitute one-third of children in out-of-home care. Nearly half (48.5 percent) of these children are living with non-relatives.[40] In Canada, 30 to 40 percent of children in child welfare placements are Aboriginal, even though they constitute less than four percent of the child population.[41] This number represents three times the amount of children at the peak of residential schools.[42]

Native Americans in the United States face a similar situation. In a class-action lawsuit, three Native American parents, the Oglala Sioux Tribe, and the Rosebud Sioux Tribe have challenged the continued removal of Indian children in Pennington County, South Dakota. The plaintiffs claim these removals are based on insufficient evidence and without timely and proper hearings, which violate the Indian Child Welfare Act of 1978 and deny them the right to due process.[43] In South Dakota, Native children are 11 times more likely to be placed in foster care.[44] This trend matches other states such as Alaska, Montana, Oklahoma, and Wyoming.

Foster care is not the only concern either. There have been many controversial cases involving Native children and white adoptive parents. The most well-known and controversial case, Adoptive Couple v. Baby Girl (2013), involved a four-year legal battle for the custody of Baby Veronica. The Supreme Court ruled in favor of Matt and Melanie Capobianco, a white couple from South Carolina, who had adopted Veronica when she was born, over Dusten Brown, the biological father and an enrolled member of the Cherokee Nation. The father was portrayed in the media and courts as a deadbeat dad who did not want to pay child support even though he wished to marry the mother and take care of Veronica. Despite the various attempts by the birth mother and adoptive couple to hide Brown’s native heritage and circumvent the ICWA, the South Carolina Supreme Court ruled in Brown’s favor. Thus, Veronica lived with Brown for nearly two years before he was forced to return her to the Capobiancos.

Justice Samuel A. Alito, writing for a five-member majority, argued that the ICWA is not applicable when “the parent abandoned the Indian child before birth and never had custody [legal or physical] of the child” during the time of the adoption proceedings. While this was the primary justification for the ruling, the Supreme Court also focused on Brown and Veronica’s small fractional blood quantum. Important to note is the Cherokee tribe’s rejection of blood quantum as a membership requirement. Indeed, blood quantum is a U.S. legal construct that was introduced in the late 19th century as a means to eliminate Native Americans by making it more difficult to claim Native identity and therefore diminish Native tribes and their claims to land.

During the oral arguments of the Supreme Court case, the concern was that even though Veronica’s supposed blood quantum was only 3/256th (and her father’s only 3/128th), she would receive “extraordinary rights.” The hypervisible concern over blood quantum reveals an important slippage in the argument about “the best interest of the child.” Rather than being about the best interest of Veronica, the case was really concerned with the way in which the (“invalid”) claims to group rights of the tribes “infringed” (in a racist manner) upon the privileged individual rights of the white adoptive couple. The presumption and conclusion are that white adoptive parents should have access to adopt any child that is perceived to be better off with white parents. Indeed, whiteness is the legal measurement that helps adjudicate this case. What is obviously missed is that the issue is not about racial group rights, but about political sovereignty, which has been continuously denied within the structure of settler colonialism despite the existence of ICWA.

After Brown was ordered to return Veronica, the Capobiancos and their spokesperson painted Brown as Veronica’s kidnapper, reminiscent of classic (racialized and gendered) captivity narratives, to drum up public support. To name Brown a kidnapper ignores this long history of child removal and the power dynamics that surround it. The decision of Adoptive Couple v. Baby Girl is important because it sets a precedent that further diminishes the acknowledgement of race and sovereignty. From this decision, and efforts expressed by Capobianco supporters who want to drastically revise or abolish the ICWA, race and indigeneity no longer matter, and of course, whiteness and settler colonialism continue to be unmarked structures within our adoption, child welfare, and social/political systems.


The issues of Native American child welfare and adoptions engender numerous questions. What is in “the best interest of the child” is the primary question at the forefront of all child welfare decisions. But we must also ask, who should decide what is best for the child? It should be clear that tribes should hold the power to determine the welfare and placement decision of their children. Another question might be, “how do we address or prevent further injustice for Native communities?” We might begin by “queering” the family. Historically, child welfare and adoptive families have worked within a Western, nuclear, heterosexual framework of family (seeking to be “normal”). But as Raven Sinclair has suggested, we should embrace different ways of knowing, being, and doing that ascertain more open conceptualizations of family and adoption.[45]

It is also imperative to disrupt the structure and ideology of settler colonialism by “un-thinking” the U.S. nation-state as always a given.[46] We are a relatively young country, and there are no promises from the future that say America will be the same. Un-thinking the nation-state does not mean inverting power relations so white folks are on the bottom living on reservations, but it could mean destabilizing “fixed” borders, communalizing (rather than privatizing) space, and “making” power that enables tribes to be self-determined and sovereign nations.[47]

My hope with this article is to not just to “fill in the gap” of missing Native American and Indigenous adoption history, but it is also to help explain the “politics of our lack of knowledge.”[48] Such historicization reveals relational connections (of how our intimate and political lives are tied) and the sites of uneven power, which can produce new critical questions. Thus, this article also considers how we might, as one of my mentors says, “Stand with those who have the least”; not in an “oppression Olympics” kind of way, but because we have “become fluent in each others histories.” And it is my hope as non-Indigenous adoptees, and society in general, that we realize how we have benefited from the structure of settler colonialism.

~ Kit Myers