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Sandy White Hawk’s Response to Susan Harness

Below is our friend Sandy White Hawk’s response to the podcast we did with our friend Susan Harness. Enjoy.

Dear Kevin,

I wanted to respond to Susan Harness’ reference to the Southeast Asian tradition the Gifting of a child as an alternative to standard adoption.

In Indian Country a traditional alternative to standard adoption practice is now developing.  It is called Customary Adoption or Custom Adoption. Long before first European contact Indian nations had a custom that kept and maintained balance with their communities; adoption was one of those customs.

Tribes are beginning to reclaim their traditional ways of maintaining family connections for those who would otherwise be separated from their families and communities if the family was struggling in taking care of their children.

The White Earth Tribe Band of Ojibwe of Minnesota has been the leader in developing this practice in its tribal court. Adoption money, SSI and other benefits follow the child in the process just as in a standard adoption. The major difference is parental rights are not terminated. In White Earth they use the term “suspended.”

Termination of parental rights is not a tribal belief. One cannot severe the familial connection. The termination of parental rights adds to the pain of a struggling parent, family and community. Children need to be protected if their parents who are not able to keep their children safe but terminating parental rights do not have to happen to protect the child or help the struggling parent.

Suspension of parental rights allows the mother and or father to re-enter the child’s life if they get on a good path, as a full custodial parent if that is in the original agreement. The adoptive family is often a tribal member and or approved by the tribe. They do their own home studies and adoptions through their tribal court.

Customary Adoption in White Earth has been very successful. In 2009 they had done about 250 adoptions where only 2 have disrupted. I believe this is due to the tribes Home Study Program they developed. The fact that parental rights are not terminated more relatives come forward to help because they will not have to be part termination hearings, which has to be exceptionally painful for families.

In White Earth Customary Adoption the birth mother or father can have a voice in the placement of their children and the adoptee can come get any information in his/her file anytime they wish.

Since parental rights are not terminated, only suspended, (or whatever term a particular tribe chooses) the mother can re-enter the child’s life, if they get on a good path, as full custody parent if that is the agreement.

Tribes from across the country are starting to develop Customary Adoption. Customary Adoption was passed into California law in 2009,

Customary Adoption is based in Native thought – life ways. For the Lakota people it is one of our Seven Sacred Rites, called Hunka (Making Relatives) Ceremony. It is when a child (or adult) is adopted into a family, without severing their original family ties so families expand.

The Making of Relatives binds the adoption through ceremony and is honored until death.

The elders tell us that Hunka happened in many different ways. If a child was lost to disease early in life a family may Hunka another child offered by another family. Adults would make relatives maybe after their family member died so the family would Hunka a young man or young woman to take his place. This helped in a couple ways. The young man or young woman who was adopted would assume the role of the missing family member. That meant contributing by hunting, preparing food, taking care of the children or the old ones; it preserved the family system and strengthened the extended family.  The Lakota people have never stopped Making Relatives in the traditional Hunka Ceremony. It is very common to hear someon say, “This is my Hunka Uncle or Hunka Sister.”

I was honored to witness a monthly White Earth Adoption Day in 2007. Relatives from both the birth family and the adoptive family attended along with community members and the spiritual leader. There were approximately twenty-five people gathered. Words of encouragement were shared by the spiritual leader and then all participated in a traditional pipe ceremony before they went into courtroom. The court room filled up with everyone even the young ones. Both birth mother and adoptive mother are wrapped in star quilts and pictures are taken.  After the formality of law is done everyone gathers for a feast. Another honor song is sung and blessing said. It was beautiful to witness.

I interviewed the young birth mother afterwards and she said that she had five children. The oldest three were placed in stranger adoption (my words) but her two youngest daughters she got to help to choose the parents and visitation was arranged through Customary Adoption.

She admitted that she was not in a place to take care of her babies because she is addicted (as was her mother). Grandmother was a boarding school survivor, distant but tried to be there for her family. She said that she felt good about this adoption.

I know that while she knew she did the right thing for the safety of her children it was still sad for her. When the feast was over she leaned on the large glass window forehead pressed to the glass watching her two young girls walk away with the parents she agreed to let raise her babies.

As a Native American adoptee who was adopted in during the time of systematic removal of tribal children, secrecy and during the time that adopted children were adopted to “have a better life” my heart rested knowing that these Ojibwe children will know who they are, where they come from which will help them understand what they are going to do in life and where they are going to go. The four essential questions in life our elders tell us we have to be able to answer to have balance. Most importantly this generation of White Earth adoptees will remember the drum, the song sung in their honor, the prayers said in Ojibwe, the food, running and playing while the adults visited; a memory of being cared for by a community; no shame, no guilt, only a community of relatives there to support them and their mother.

Another source of information on Customary Adoption can be found at:

Sandy White Hawk 2012

3 Comments on Sandy White Hawk’s Response to Susan Harness

  1. Psychobabbler // May 3, 2012 at 10:02 am // Reply

    “It is when a child (or adult) is adopted into a family, without severing their original family ties so families expand.”
    I love this, and don’t understand why so many people have a hard time with this concept. I have been asked many times about how I would feel if my child chose to search for his original parents, and people are astonished that I would welcome and support it. They see it as somehow diminishing my relationship to him. And yet, we create legally binding relationships while expanding families all the time, without it diminishing our relationships to original families. It’s called marriage.

  2. lara hentz // May 3, 2012 at 11:42 am // Reply

    Reblogged this on Author Trace A. DeMeyer and commented:
    Sandy White Hawk on Custom Adoption

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