In 1967, Jewish Family Services began putting Native children into Jewish homes. These stories tell what it is like for a Native American to be adopted into a white Jewish family. It is told through a series of interviews involving four adults. Part Two.
Ellah is 25, a Cree from Lac La Ronge, Sask. She was adopted when she three years old.
Q: For what reason were you put up for adoption?
A: My mother was an alcoholic and she left my sister and I, unattended
for long periods of time. Eventually a neighbor called social services and we were put into foster care. My mother arrived to pick up Sonya (sister), because Sonya, at the tender age of six, knew how to run a household, having been responsible for my care and the chores. I was later placed with a family in Montreal.
Q: How old were you when you were adopted?
A: Three years old.
Q: What new culture were you adopted into?
A: Judaism. My parents were very involved in the Jewish community. We went to Hebrew School three times a week, after regular school. We would celebrate the Sabbath just about every Friday night. When I was young I wanted to be a Rabbi when I grew up. By my teenage years I no longer wanted to be a good Jewish girl.
Q: How was the relationship with your parents when you were young?
A: Very confusing. I had been in many foster homes before. I figured this was temporary and never really bonded. Also, there wasn’t very much information providing my parents about my history. They couldn’t understand my behavior. My mother had a hard time coping. For example, whenever my father would enter my room alone, I would run out. He took this as a sign of rejection, and decided to treat me similar. My mother gave this statement as a reason when I asked her why my father was so cold to me. I remember thinking ‘Give me a break, I was three years old’, but I didn’t dare question her.
The relationship was really bad and I often threatened to run away, as early as age six. I moved out when I was eighteen.
Q: How was the relationship with your siblings?
A: Strange. I had a brother, who was also adopted, (non-native) he was nine months older than me. He was adopted when he was a baby. You see, my mother didn’t think she could have children. So they adopted Mark, and a couple of years later they sent out for me. Then my mother found out she was pregnant. Shortly after I arrived from Manitoba, my sister was born. My parents discouraged my brother and I from having a relationship. As we grew older, we spoke less and less until the only phrases he ever said were ‘Mom wants you’ or ‘Telephone!’ He followed my fathers footsteps and also ignored me. A strong relationship with my sister was encouraged for both my brother and me. I remember as a teenager, that I would treat my sister the way my brother treated me. My mother put a stop to that very soon.
Q: How is the relationship now?
A: With my parents, its civil and somewhat superficial. Actually, its pretty recent that were on speaking terms. I completely cut them out of my life for a year. With my sister, its superficial. There are so many issues from our past that never get discussed. Like it never happened. With my brother, its strange because we are talking. After all these years, he is a stranger. He used to be so cold and threaten violence. Now he is shy and polite. My brother is also withdrawn from the family. When we get together for like Rosh Hashanah, I notice that my brother vents his anger at my parents. I can’t believe they take that from him. If I were to do that, I’d be dead. Simple. He is rude and is not shy to insult their ideas. My grandmothers explanation is that they don’t want to lose another child (meaning me) so they put up with it. Though I have problems with my parents I am very close with my grandmother.
Q: Was there any abuse?
A: Yes. First my real mother beat the crap out of me as a baby. I have a list from my case study. Then my adopted family, they mostly verbally abused me, although it sometimes lead to physical. My first memory of being adopted is my mother taping my mouth shut because I cried too much. Even more strange I remember thinking that this isn’t so bad – I knew I had been through worse. When I was twelve, I went to a private school called Weston. It was here that I encountered other Natives. Mohawks. I was so excited to meet other Natives and even though I didn’t have the accent or know the language, I felt apart and proud. I promptly picked up their unmistakeable accent. When my parents heard me talk, they decided to show me my culture. They drove into Kahnawake (in their Mercedes) with the three of us. My brother was first to ask where we were. We were passing a poor area of town, consisting of many trailer homes. My father turned and looked at me. ‘We’re in Caugnawaga. Look at your people, living in huts, aren’t you proud of them?’ He opened the car door. ‘Get out! Go live with your People!!. As I was deciding to go or not, three guys with baseball bats were following us. My father closed the door, and promptly drove out. That was my lesson on how to be proud of my people.
Q: Did your parents ever introduce you to your own culture?
Q: When did you realize that you were different (Native)?
A: I could tell by looking in a mirror! Everyone in my family was blond hair and blue eyed (expect for my father, but he still didn’t resemble me.) It was obvious that I was different. I was always very proud of my Native heritage.
Q: Did you ever meet your birth parents?
A: Yes. I went back to Manitoba last year. My father died when I was two. I visited his grave in Flin Flon with my brother. I have thirteen siblings on my fathers side and seven on my mothers side
(including my adopted brother and sister, I have twenty two siblings.) I met my mother in Prince Albert. She’s been dry for five years now.
Q: How do they fit into your life now?
A: I only met six of my siblings, and I keep in touch with them. My mother calls about every month. Sometimes for money. I find it very strange. I just met my real mother and I have to take care of her. Once she asked me for either a winter coat or money for a coat. I didn’t have the money so I sent her a coat. I couldn’t say no, but the decision stressed me out. (My boyfriend volunteered the coat.)
Q: Do you feel any longing to go back to your homeland?
A: Sometimes. I have a lot of family in Manitoba. But right now my life is here.
Q: How do you see yourself today?
A: I see myself as a Jewish Native American. I am very proud of my heritage. I have a lot of respect for the Jewish culture. I’m interested in learning traditional spirituality and the longhouse, although.
Q: What culture will you raise your children?
A: I think it is important for my future children to know their ancestry. They will be brought up on traditional values, and will also be exposed to the Jewish culture. (I’m sure we will also a Christmas tree.) Give them the best of both worlds.
Q: Do you believe you are assimilated?
A: No. I don’t believe I’ve been absorbed into the Jewish culture. And I don’t think I’m fooling anyone. When I was a teenager, I would date Jewish boys. I can think of two women (mothers of my boyfriends) that gave me hard time for going out with their sons. They both had the same reason. I wasn’t a real Jew. Even though I had been converted and I went to Hebrew school, to them I wasn’t good enough. My boyfriend is Mohawk from Kahnawake. I feel so close and comfortable with his family. His uncle calls me his adopted niece. When he says that I feel happy, but I certainly don’t want to be adopted again.