My unmarried birthparents Earl and Helen lived on the southside of Chicago in the 1950s when I was conceived. Many people had relocated to cities for work (watch the LOOKING TOWARD HOME documentary). Both my parents were from rural areas. My father Earl Bland joined the Navy at age 18 and as far as I know, didn’t identify as Indian but knew he was. (Earl was mixed-American Indian and Euro – mostly Irish.) The women in the Allen-Harlow-Bland-Morris family had strong intentions to maintain and live American Indian”culture.” The Harlow clan, to this day, hold an annual powwow gathering and talking circle. No one I know in the family was enrolled in a tribe. Their migrations to Illinois from Virginia, Tennessee and Kentucky enter into this. And it’s a concern. I was not there to hear the stories of who, how and why.
I know what my father told me when we first spoke. Could he have been wrong? Did he say Cherokee because it’s a common name, more known than the Potawatomi, Huron, or Sac and Fox? (We have a real problem in the US with so little Indian history being taught or written. Unless it’s taught at home, you’ll have a hard time finding evidence or proof of American Indians still living in Illinois.)
I had no reason to question my father Earl when I was 38. I took him at his word. Obviously I had questions about why I was adopted out, why they gave me away and not many questions about ancestral charts proving Indian blood. The reason I bring this up is the Indian Identity Police. Some are suggesting if you are not an enrolled “member” of a federally recognized tribe, then you should not claim your Indian ancestry.
But Why? I am a member of a family whose women identify as Indian for generations.
As an mixed-race adoptee, it’s been a jagged pill for me to swallow. I followed my instincts, not expecting I’d ever find answers. Before I finished the memoir One Small Sacrifice, my sister Teresa and I worked with a genealogist to find proof on the Morris-Conner side. (One great-grandmother Mary Francis Morris was raised by relatives who are Watson-Wards, who are enrolled Cherokee.)
How many tribes are now petitioning the federal government for “recognition” to be deemed sovereign? Over 200 tribes, such as five tribes in Virginia who are not “federally recognized.”“How did you know you’re Indian?” My dad’s youngest sister Janie asked me once on the phone. My aunt told me many stories about Granny Morris-Conner smoking a pipe, using tobacco as medicine and how she always knew she was Indian.
Not hesitating, I told my aunt, “I always knew.” But I told her that until I met my father, I didn’t claim Indian ancestry. I believed it but never said it. After I met Earl and was told then I did become a “Native” journalist in 1996.
For me and for other adoptees, you’re on the Red Road with no map. You can only follow the voice in your head.
Five years prior, in 1991, I was in Mexico and woke one night and started writing Red Man: Through the Eyes of Many. First it was a poem then developed into a series of children’s stories. I had no evil intention. I was sitting on a cold tile floor in a bathroom at 2 a.m.: this writing came like a vision and the stories just flowed out. Later, with miraculous synchronicity, back in Oregon, I met Merle Locke, a famous Oglala Lakota ledger artist, who told me to go meet his sister Ellowyn. I drove out to Pine Ridge, South Dakota, she read my stories, liked them lots, and taught me history at her kitchen table, history you’d never find in a book.
That same trip I did my first sweat on the Rosebud rez.
Like my grandmothers, I walk the red road without enrollment papers saying I’m Indian.
(My mother Helen Thrall's mother taught on the Bad River rez in Wisconsin. Why? I don't know yet.)