Chapter 1: Stolen
My name is Nakuset and I'm a product of the Sixties Scoop.
Chances are that you’ve heard the term in the news recently, as there is currently a lawsuit in Ontario against the government from those affected by this brutal phenomenon.
Or perhaps you’ve heard that Manitoba recently apologized to families who were devastated by this policy.
Maybe you’re even familiar with the group Indigenous Adoptee, a collective support service for Native adoptees. They host conferences and workshops with cultural activities throughout the year.
I wanted to write about my experience so that people can truly understand how the system has failed Aboriginal children. According to the book Stolen From Our Embrace - The Abduction of First Nations Children and the Restoration of Aboriginal Communities, (Suzanne Fournier and Ernie Crey. Douglas & McIntyre Vancouver/Toronto. 1997), 85% of these adoptions fail.
I think my adoptive parents had the best intentions, but I am included in the statistic above.
Although my experience was very difficult, it pushed me to change the system. Through this series you will learn where I found the strength to succeed, despite all the odds stacked against me.
I made a conscious decision to try to help the next generation who are in the system, so that their experience can be more positive than mine. So that as they age out of the system, they are empowered. Some refer to this movement as the Seventh Generation.
And now, a short history lesson.
Ah the Sixties Scoop... the government’s solution to the enduring "Indian problem". After residential schools began to close down, the government started a provincial assimilation process as opposed to a federal one. In the late 1950s they began sending social workers into reservations to "evaluate" if Aboriginal parents were capable of raising their children. Some of these children were then put into the foster care system or adopted out.
Sometimes the children were left on reserve. Residential schools ensured that new parents were ill equipped, suffering from a myriad of symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder. Furthermore, these parents had no role models on how to bring up a child in a loving, nurturing way. Residential schools had stolen this from them.
Many parents were perfectly able to bring up their children, but this didn't matter. The social workers took their kids as well.
No running water? We will take your child.
No indoor plumbing? We will take your child.
No refrigerator? We will take your child.
When some parents were found reclining, the social workers would say "Don't get up. We will take your child.”
It was common belief that these poor children would be better off in a white middle to upper class family. Some social workers received $5000 per child adopted out into the United States.
In the 1960s and ‘70s, one out of four Aboriginal children were apprehended. Usually adopted far away, so it would be difficult to retrace their steps. My theory is this: If you are taken from your Aboriginal family and adopted into a non-Native family, you will lose your Indian status. Without your status, you have no treaty rights. Treaty rights may include land, free prescriptions, free dental care, crisis counselling, post-secondary education and other rights, depending on the treaty.
If apprehended children do not have their status, the government doesn't have to honour these rights. The government gets to keep the monies that were supposed to be allocated to our people.
See the problem?
Chapter 2: The Early Years
I don't remember. Not a thing. Nada. Nothing! Trauma is funny that way. I don't remember travelling by plane from Manitoba to Montreal. I don't really remember my Cree family, just small, shadowy glimpses of a girl and a woman.
I was adopted through Jewish Family Services. They provided my parents with a catalogue of Aboriginal children. My parents flipped through the catalogue and chose my picture. They already had two other children - one was adopted from Quebec, a son who was nine months older than me, and the other was a daughter, who was born just after I was adopted. She was home made. My parents did not think they were able to conceive and that’s why they chose to adopt.
Apparently my brother and I got along famously for the first week, and then he informed my parents that I could be sent back.
I arrived with the impression that this was a temporary placement. Apparently I was very quiet and serious. My mother called me the "three year old teenager".
My relationship with my parents was strained from the start. The relationship with my brother also deteriorated, but that was for different reasons.
My earliest memory is crying in the kitchen and my new mother threatening to tape my mouth shut if I didn't stop. I continued to cry so she followed through on her threat. I remember finding this a strange thing to do, as I ripped the tape off. I also knew that this was not that bad. I had been through much worse before.
I knew I looked different. Darker than the rest. Dark hair, eyes and skin. My new siblings both had blond hair and blue eyes. They looked like a real brother and sister. I hated the way I looked. Tall, dark and skinny. With glasses. I used to look in the mirror and cry out of the frustration that I didn't resemble anyone. I used to have nightmares that no one would want to marry me because I was a different colour. My mother laughed it off. "You're not really an Indian," she said. "Maybe you’re one eighteenth Indian." But looking in the mirror told me different.
But looking in the mirror told me different.
I remember going to a neighbour's house to play with their daughter, Tammy. Her mother looked at me and said "You're a Cree." I replied that I didn't know and ran back home to verify. My mother told me I was not. I remember the confusion on my neighbour’s face as I relayed the message.
Although I wasn't aware of my tribal affiliation, I knew I was an Indian. I'm not sure how I knew I was Native, I just did. I also told everyone who would listen. This embarrassed my parents and they denied it. Whenever someone asked why I looked so different I was instructed to say that I was Israeli. But I never did.
I would make up wonderful stories about living in a tipi! People ate it up. I was strongly urged not to share my tales.
I was thoroughly converted into the Jewish culture. I went to Hebrew school a couple of times a week after regular school and attended Synagogue on Friday nights. I found it interesting. I still consider myself a Jew today - non-practicing, but it's all I know. You wouldn't believe how much flak I receive from both Aboriginal and Jewish people on how I self-identify.
Some want me to choose. I have heard, "You are not a real Indian." or "You are not a real Jew." so many times throughout my life. It's tiring - racism by both. But I'm stubborn, as you'll see.
Life was less complicated during early childhood. Having to explain why I looked different was the norm. Being left out because I looked different was also to be expected. My mother said that I used to take cookies to school to give to other kids. She called it buying my friendships.
I tried to fit in, I tried to be a good Jewish girl. I thought that if I aspired to be a Rabbi when I grew up then maybe I would be accepted but I never was.
My parents treated me very differently from my siblings. They were so affectionate with their other two children and far more distant with me. I came with baggage. Apparently I would not stay in the same room as my father who was six foot four inches tall. I would run out of the room and he took this badly.
I remember watching my little sister on my father's lap, evidently the apple of his eye. I knew in my heart that we would never have that connection.
My father seemed to barely tolerate me and my mother was stuck in the middle but consistently drifted closer to my father’s side.
Throughout my childhood, my parents hired nannies from abroad. They each stayed for about a year and I bonded with them. I was never sure why my mother needed a nanny, as she didn't work. It was very difficult when they would leave. I knew I wanted to leave too. I started threatening to run away at a young age and that continued until I finally did, at age 18.
Memories to Sonya – Part 2
Memories to Sonya – Part 3
Nakuset, the Executive Director of the Native Women's Shelter of Montréal, is a Cree from Lac la Ronge, Saskatchewan. She has three beautiful boys: Kistin, Mahkisis and Mahihkan. Nakuset was adopted by a Jewish family in Montréal and draws on her adoptee experience for insight into her work advocating for Aboriginal children in care. She is also the Co-President of the Montréal Urban Aboriginal Community Strategy Network. Some of her recent accomplishments include creating, producing and hosting the television series Indigenous Power and being voted Woman of the Year by the Montreal Council of Women. Nakuset is dedicated to improving the lives of urban Indigenous peoples.