Indigenous activist and author Sandy White Hawk recently published a memoir about her adoption by a white family and her journey reclaiming her culture. Credit: Handout from Sandy White Hawk

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This story is being co-published with The Imprint, a nonprofit news outlet covering child welfare and youth justice.

For years, Sandy White Hawk has been invited to bring the Wabléniča Ceremony to Indigenous communities around the country, welcoming home fellow adoptees taken through adoption and foster care. 

Using cultural items to “wipe off the smog of shame, sadness, and hurt from the shoulders of all who stand in the circle,” healing can begin, the founder of Minnesota’s First Nations Repatriation Institute writes in her new memoir released Dec. 6.

Ceremonies, sweat lodges, and sundances have been key to White Hawk’s own recovery from a traumatic past as a Sicangu Lakota woman, she describes in the book, “A Child of the Indian Race,” published by the Minnesota Historical Society Press.

“In the Wabléniča Ceremony, we can stand in the circle, open that part of our heart, and let the medicine of smoke from the sage, the sound of the drum, and the song go into that dark place and begin healing,” she writes.

White Hawk became more comfortable with time as she offered the ceremonies alongside Jerry Dearly, an Oglala Lakota songwriter who wrote the Wabléniča song. 

“It was getting easier to quiet the doubts that fueled my anxieties,” she writes. “I had started to understand this is what I was supposed to be doing, and I was grateful to be part of this healing time.”

White Hawk, whose Lakota name is “Cokta Najiŋ Wiŋyaŋ, Stands in the Center Woman,” began taking notes for her memoir 20 years ago, she told The Imprint in a series of interviews. Her life story begins with her removal from the Rosebud Indian Reservation in South Dakota in 1955. 

A picture of Indigenous activist and author Sandy White Hawk, age 18 months, from her new memoir, “A Child of the Indian Race.” White Hawk was adopted by a white family. Credit: Handout from the Minnesota Historical Society Press

The book is based on her memories and scant documents in the adoption file that the woman who raised her passed along before she died. The records show she was taken from her biological mother and adopted by a white missionary couple—a farmer and a housewife—when she was just 18 months old. 

In her book, White Hawk, now 69, recounts vivid recollections as early as her toddler years: being lifted into a red pickup truck between “two unfamiliar people,”  and “the sour smell of the white arm trying to hold me.” Her next memory was her arrival at the adoptive couple’s home, and hiding under the kitchen table as an unfamiliar woman tried to coax her out.

White Hawk does not name her adoptive mother in her book. But she describes her as abusive sexually, verbally, and emotionally. Her adoptive mother, she writes, made sure she knew that being a Native child was something to be despised, not celebrated.

From a young age, White Hawk writes, she was told she had been rescued from a life of destitution; that her mother was an alcoholic who gave her up and never really wanted her except as a “welfare check so she could drink.” She was “lucky” the white missionary couple adopted her. They “saved” her from the reservation. 

White Hawk said her Native identity became entwined with the hateful words spewed at her throughout childhood—that, “I was an ungrateful, dirty, ugly little Indian kid” from a “reservation full of people who didn’t really want me, anyway.”

In the documents finalizing her adoption, a young White Hawk is identified as “a child of the indian race (sic).” That phrase would become the title of her book, which examines the personal impact of the centuries-long campaign by the U.S. government and Christian church to destroy tribal people and steal their land. 

White Hawk described reading that phrase from her adoption files for the first time: “A child of the Indian race—I don’t even know what being Indian meant! I felt ashamed that I didn’t know what it meant to be Indian. I was so enraged that I was reading about myself as if I were an animal!”

A ‘miracle prayer’

White Hawk was adopted prior to the passage of the 1978 Indian Child Welfare Act, which aims to protect tribal children from foster care and adoption into non-tribal homes. She has no record of being in the foster care system, but duly notes that when her care and custody changed hands, there were no legal protections that might have kept her closer to her home on the Rosebud reservation and among her Sicangu Lakota family and culture.

In the decades before the act was passed, as many as one-third of Indigenous children were being removed from their Indigenous communities. 

“Adoptions were either closed, or there wasn’t due process,” White Hawk said. 

White Hawk describes her early childhood separation from her tribe as particularly tragic because she ended up living so close—and yet so far—from her kin. Her adoptive parents originally lived near her reservation, where many of her biological relatives and her mother lived. But they moved from South Dakota to Wisconsin when White Hawk was 4 to give her “a better chance,” in the words of her adoptive mother. Even from a young age, White Hawk recalls, she suspected a deception.

This gaslighting by missionaries who punished her for her Indigeneity became internalized shame, and remained constant through her childhood, White Hawk recounts. She started drinking at age 14 and doing drugs at 16. 

By the time she was 28 she was a mother, which presented the prospect of new wounds.

White Hawk told The Imprint she hit a new low in 1980, when she took her welfare check to a bar, cashed it, and lost five days between December 5 and December 10. It left her daughter without food or Christmas presents.

After that five-day binge in 1980, she whispered a “miracle prayer” to “the Creator,” asking for help in her “compulsion” to drink. And somehow, she said, it worked, shifting something inside her toward change and healing. She said she hasn’t had a drink since then. 

After that experience, she started attending sobriety meetings two or three times a day, and remains committed to healing the deeper problems that caused her alcohol abuse.

“I had to work to forgive myself, to give myself compassion for not yet knowing how to be a loving mother,” White Hawk said in an interview. “Because how could I? I was never shown that. How could I give what I never had or learned?”

White Hawk was the third-eldest of nine siblings, but for decades had no connection to any of her Lakota relatives or the lands she took her first steps on. When she was 35, she gathered all the money she could—$40—for her first trip home. 

White Hawk’s family on the Rosebud reservation helped her understand her place within the larger framework of genocide towards Native peoples, she explains in her memoir. 

They told her stories of other relatives who were also adopted out or taken into foster care, and showed her the devastating legacy of how Indian boarding schools had severed her family. She learned the troubling history of adoptive removals: during the 1950s and 1960s, when white couples couldn’t conceive during the Baby Boom but desperately wanted children, countless Indigenous families lost theirs.

Serving other First Nations adoptees

While attending the Rosebud Fair powwow, White Hawk writes of a realization: while Indigenous communities have ceremonies and songs for nearly everything, no such healing event existed for adoptees. She discussed this with spiritual leaders she trusted during her early years of cultural reclamation, elders esteemed in their communities for their spiritual gifts. As a result, the Wabléniča Ceremony—named after the Lakota word for orphan—is now widely held and offered to adoptees nationwide.

The first Wabléniča ceremony, held in August 2000 in Birch Coulee, Minnesota, began as a four-line song in Lakota. It grew nationwide and continued for 17 years until the COVID-19 pandemic hit.

White Hawk’s approach to healing for Native adoptees merges the power of song and ceremony with the expansion of research and data.

In 2012, she created the Minneapolis-based First Nations Repatriation Institute, a first-of-its-kind nonprofit that serves as a resource for Indigenous people who have experienced foster care and adoption. The institute guides them “to return home, reconnect, and reclaim their identity.”

The institute’s research team has published five papers on the adoption of Indigenous children that document high rates of physical, sexual, and emotional abuse. A sixth was published last year: “American Indian and White Adoptees: Are There Mental Health Differences?”

From her Minneapolis base, White Hawk leads community forums that bring together adoptees, former foster youth, and their families, as well as child welfare and mental health professionals who work to prevent the removal of First Nations children. She also initiated an ongoing support group  in the Twin Cities area for adoptees and their birth relatives.

In August, the First Nations Repatriation Institute collaborated with the National Native American Boarding Schools Healing Coalition and the University of Minnesota to collect data on the experiences of American Indian survivors of boarding schools, foster care, and adoption. Researchers are now examining roughly 1,000 responses to the Child Removal in Native Communities survey.

Mother-daughter bond

The cover of “A Child of the Indian Race” was designed by White Hawk’s eldest daughter, Dyani White Hawk Polk, 46. White Hawk Polk was 4 years old when her mother garnered the strength to pursue sobriety and began to find healing through cultural reconnection.

Her mother’s journey informed the cover image for the memoir—a red dress print inspired by her mother’s powwow and ceremonial dresses. Titled “Wačháŋtognaka | Nurture”, the print is one in a series called “Takes Care Of Them,” four screen prints that depict Northern Plains style dentalium dresses. 

The cover of Sandy White Hawk’s new memoir, “A Child of the Indian Race.” Credit: Handout from the Minnesota Historical Society Press

Nurturing is one of the infinite ways Indigenous women uplift their communities, White Hawk Polk explained. The color blue on the dress print, Wówahokuŋkiya, depicts the leadership of elders; the yellow, Wókaǧe, is creation; and Nakíčižiŋ, or green, represents the tribe’s ability to protect. 

An award-winning visual artist and independent curator, White Hawk Polk has multiple fine arts degrees and has participated in residencies in Australia, Russia, and Germany. Her work is featured in museum collections across the United States, including the Museum of Modern Art in New York City, Whitney Museum of American Art, Akta Lakota Museum, Smithsonian National Museum of the American Indian, and numerous others. 

White Hawk Polk describes these pieces as pulling from the continuity of her art, “heavily rooted in porcupine quill work, beadwork, and the art forms that were historically really held up and nurtured by Lakota women.” Each style is inspired by a different time period of traditional Plains-style dentalium shell dresses. Each print is named individually with a quality that expresses how women in Indigenous communities care collectively for children and elders alike.

“All of my older, more formative years, I had a connection to our family, and was growing an increasing connection to cultural practice,” White Hawk Polk said.

The mother-daughter duo now share a home in Shakopee with their husbands, close to numerous relatives. White Hawk Polk is the mother of two, and named her oldest daughter after her Lakota grandmother, Nina. She attributes her familial and cultural connectivity to her mother’s commitment to reconnection.  

“That came directly through her effort to make sure that I didn’t have the same kind of separation she suffered,” White Hawk Polk said. “I’m wildly grateful for the work she’s done.”

Dyani White Hawk Polk created the cover for her mother’s memoir, “A Child of the Indian Race.” Credit: Jaida Grey Eagle | The Imprint
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Nancy Marie Spears

Nancy Marie Spears is an enrolled member of the Cherokee Nation and the Indigenous children and families reporter for The Imprint. She can be reached at nspears@imprintnews.org.