Roaring into the past

Melissa Olson (photo by Sarah Whiting)

“Sham battle my arse!,” exclaimed my adoptive grandmother.

I had found an old, yellowing newspaper atop a box rolling down a makeshift conveyor belt at a county auction. The headline had caught my attention, “Sham Battle at 7pm Will Open Sioux Uprising Celebration.”

Below the headline, a stoic photo of an elderly Native man in full headdress. Next to it, a smaller headline read, “35 Indians Will Attack 115 Pioneers.”

I showed the newspaper story to my grandmother. “One of those arrows grazed your grandfather’s brow. He had to have stitches!” She paused to lean on the counter next to her kitchen sink. I knew she hated to talk about frontier history or racism.

“Your grandfather went to school after getting out of the Navy,” she told me. “After college he took a job here in town. Later, he served as captain of the National Guard. That’s why he was asked to play the captain in the centennial affair.”

This centennial affair was a celebration, held in 1962 in New Ulm, to commemorate “The Great Sioux Uprising.” My adoptive grandfather played captain of the frontier militia that fought the Dakota in the re-enactment.

He listened to my grandmother’s story quietly, and walked away saying nothing.

My mom is of the generation of Native American children who were forcibly adopted by white parents in the years after World War II. She was seven at the time, and was raised by two people in New Ulm until she left at age 18.

After we had left my grandparents’s house, I asked my mother if she recalled the centennial affair. She said she couldn’t remember a single thing.

Mom does remember something of the time before she went to live with her adoptive parents. My favorite story is the one she told my brother and I when we were little, about the Catholic orphanage where she spent the first years of her life.

“When I was a little kid,” she would say, “All the kids would go up to the altar. Instead of saying the little Latin prayer we were taught, we would cross ourselves, and sing under our breath, “I-can-beat-you-at-dominoes!”

It wasn’t until graduate school that I learned about the Indian Adoption Project.

I’d had no idea there were adoptees like my mom— part of a diaspora of Native people who were removed from their families in the 1950s and 1960s.

I had never encountered the subjects of race and adoption as an undergraduate in American Indian Studies — or anywhere for that matter.

During the time I spent as an undergraduate and a graduate student at the University of Minnesota, the only mentions of Native people and adoption were found among a handful of histories of the Indian Child Welfare Act. This simply re-stated statistics of Native children who were in foster care in the 1970s.

During my third year in graduate school, I proposed a study of the Indian Adoption Project, based on what I’d found. There wasn’t enough primary material to sustain a dissertation. Emotionally exhausted, I left school without my degree.

One thing bothered me about my time in graduate school. The few articles that were written on the background of the Indian Child Welfare Act cited a set of papers archived at the University’s Social Welfare History Archive. Those papers were archived five blocks away from my office, and I’d never looked at them.

Almost five years out of graduate school, I went back to take a look. Searching through two thin folders, I found nothing new.

That evening, I sat at home in front of my laptop, searching the Minnesota History Center’s new digital archive. A reference to the Indian Adoption Project popped up. The reference led me to four large boxes in the papers of Elmer Andersen, former Minnesota governor, and his work with the Child Welfare League of America.

I went roaring into the past. I read perhaps a thousand documents. It would take another few years to process everything I’d learned.

Confronting that history helped me understand that my mom shared a story with many thousands of Native people who had been forcibly placed for adoption.

In 2014, three other women and I, with the help of a local community radio station, recorded our mothers’ stories. We then helped one another record our own stories. It took us two years to complete our project.

The result is an audio documentary entitled “Stolen Childhoods,” which aired on KFAI.

The project was the first time I felt I had found an outlet for stories no one else seemed to be telling — piercing through the silence to share the undeniable truths.