‘Stolen Childhoods’ Documentary Brings Home Historical Trauma in the Native Community

I’m sure many of you have had the experience listening to you car radio and getting caught up in an interesting MPR story; you get to your destination and regret missing the rest of the piece.

That was my experience recently, listing to: ‘Stolen Childhoods’: a documentary about the Indian Adoption Project. It is available online, and I just finished listening. It is a powerful way to understand the impact of federal assimilation policies and the tremendous trauma they created in the lives of children — and how that trauma got passed on to the next generation.

We have blogged in the past about the impacts of historical trauma, such as What Does Historical Trauma Look Like? The Native American Youth Suicide Rate and Native American Opoid Overdoes in Minnesota and Native Responses. The KFAI-produced radio documentary brings it home in a more powerful way, through personal stories by adults who suffered deeply from the adoption experience. One adoptee recalled the isolation she felt living in a rural, all-white town where none of the boys were allowed to date her; others recalled the shaming and abuse from their adopted families. (Props to producer Melissa Olson, who includes her mom, Judy, in the story.)

While this was federal policy, we need to remember that just as the case with boarding schools, churches had a big role in the harm that was done.

Discussions on historical trauma often highlight abuses of the Boarding School era. This documentary focuses on the Indian Adoption Project, a federal initiative that followed boarding schools but had the same goal: assimilation.

According to The Adoption History Project, one of the standard practices for adoption agencies in the 20th Century was called “matching.” It required that in non-family adoptions, children be placed with families that were similar to them in looks, intellect, race and religion.

The Indian Adoption Project was perhaps the single most important exception to race-matching, an almost universal policy at the time. It aspired to systematically place an entire child population across lines of nation, culture, and race.

The radio documentary cites statistics that shows the staggering impact such federal policies had on Native communities. On average, 25-35 percent of all Indian children were living apart from their families in the 1960s and 70s. Bring to mind all the children you played with in your neighborhood growing up. Now imagine a third of them are gone, and were never there, having been adopted out before you met them. Or imagine that you are five years old, living in a country where no one looks like you, and your family keeps telling you to be grateful to them for “saving” you.

Regardless of their intentions, churches were complicit in this harm. According to the website One of Many Feathers,

The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints took thousands of Navajo children to live in Mormon homes and work on their farms. The Catholic Church and other Christian denominations placed many Indian youngsters into residential institutions nationwide, from which they were fostered or adopted out.

In the 1960s and 1970s, Native activists challenged the adoption program, calling it the latest genocidal effort to wipe out Indian people and culture. It led to the passage of the Indian Child Welfare Act.

That is the academic history. Listen to the radio documentary to better understand the human toll our federal adoption policies had.

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