LAWRENCE SAMPSON (Delaware, Eastern Band Cherokee)
January 25, 1973. My sixth birthday. I remember my mother, Mary Louise Thompson, a mixed blood Delaware, pulling me into her lap and telling me I was going to have to find a new mother. I remember giggling, laughing and saying no, I didn’t want another mother. How could I have known the precipice my life stood on, the slim thread the world I knew was hanging from. One month to the day later, she was gone. My mother was dead. Everything I knew, everything my life should have been was about to change. As my mother’s life ended, the Wounded Knee occupation in South Dakota began. These two events would be the most significant of my childhood.
My sister Dianne and I were scooped up by a family that had made my mother’s acquaintance only months before. Supposedly at my mother’s behest they hid me on a farm north of Houston, where my father wouldn’t find me. My mother and father being separated, he didn’t even know of my mother’s death and by the time he found out, I was effectively hidden. The Sampsons claimed this was my mother’s wish, for me and my sister to be kept together and away from my father. Dianne and I had different fathers but the truth of it was, my dad would gladly have raised the both of us. So the testimony given at my adoption hearing was that this woman they had just met asked them, begged them in fact to adopt her two children.
So while I was squirreled away on a farm, the first hearings of my adoption began. One day my sister arrived at the farm, to inform me my mother had died. Sitting on a hay trailer in a field of cows was how I learned. I don’t think I ever really understood anything that was happening, I just remember the helpless feeling of not having any control over any of the events affecting me. One thing I do remember during that time, was seeing an Indian man on the news talking about changing life for Indian people. Many years later I would meet and become close to that man, Russell Means. He gave me the very first inklings of what I might call pride in being Indian. I had a vague awareness that I was Native, but still had no real concept of what that meant.
My formal adoption hearing was on the Monday after Christmas, the holiday falling on a weekend that year. My father discovered the goings on, only on the previous Thursday. He made the trip from Houston to his mother’s home in Tennessee to get my birth certificate and was in the courtroom on Monday morning. By the time the case was settled, falsified documents were presented with my father’s signature on them saying I wasn’t his son. The Sampson’s attempts to muddy the waters of my paternity, as much as their tales of my father’s abusive nature, succeeded in my being taken away from the only remaining adult I knew. With the ongoing occupation of Wounded Knee as a backdrop, I was like so many Native American children—taken from all I knew and what was rightfully mine. I was thrust into a world of abuse and denial of who I was.
The Sampson were a Caucasian family of English descent, very fair in complexion and devout in their Southern Baptist beliefs. Mr. Sampson was even an ordained minister, though a carpenter by trade. I immediately was forced to work in the family business which was primarily roofing houses in the Houston heat. I routinely worked well past midnight, and never got a weekend off. The hard work turned my already olive skin very dark, making me stand out distinctly from the Sampsons. Routinely they were asked about me and my origins, standing out as I did. They were clearly uncomfortable with these questions and my whole ethnicity.
I was early on told not to tell anyone I was Indian. If I was ever to admit to anything but being white, at least say I was Mexican. Apparently that was better than being Indian in their eyes. Race was frequently discussed in our household, as I learned early what “wetback” and “nigger” meant. Moreover, it was expressed to me just how disgusting my gene pool was, coming from an “Indian whore” mother and “crazy Indian” father. Mom was a beautiful woman with stunning black hair, dad identifiably Indian from the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians of North Carolina.
I had been the baggage that came along with my sister. She was in the same age bracket as the other Sampson children. Very pretty when she was young, with beautiful waist length hair, she was seen as something as a prize I guess. Their Indian princess maybe. I was this bastard dark-skinned Indian that had to be a part of the deal. I was reminded often how I wasn’t my adopted brother’s “real” brother. As though I wanted to be. I was often told how it cost $10,000 to adopt me, a curious factoid that would present itself again years later.
I experienced my first beating within a few months. A beating for something I didn’t do and then “lying” about it. This would be the routine. Eventually I learned either admit to something I didn’t do and get beat, or tell the truth and get beaten worse. I can tell you from experience: how an end table, a phone receiver, a board, a belt, and a can of beans feels when it hits your bones, your flesh, or your skull. I was beaten so severely on a couple of occasions, I had to miss school so the marks would heal. Not that they had anything to fear, Mrs. Sampson’s brother was the deputy police chief, and a highly decorated officer in the Pasadena, Texas police department.
I also know that words cut more deeply than any physical object bruises. The things I was told about my real parents were only the tip of the iceberg. I was routinely informed how stupid and worthless I was, and how I was likely to end up in prison. From my genetics, to my appearance, to my intellect, it was made clear to me how inferior I was. I could do their work, empty their garbage, wash their dishes, and do their manual labor on a roof, but I would never be one of them. Deep down, that was fine with me. I never identified with the Sampson. I didn’t want to be like them.
This would be my life until I turned twelve. Mr. Sampson developed Melanoma and died a horrible drawn-out death. A few months later my father took a chance and found me through a private investigator. He had been told at the conclusion of my adoption to never contact me. Growing larger, and strong from manual labor, I think Ms. Sampson realized I needed a father figure. Or maybe she just wanted to get rid of me on the weekends. In any event I was enthralled by getting to see my father for brief periods of time. It was like stepping into a whole other reality. The atmosphere in his house was what was probably normal but which I had never felt: a home with love, especially for children.
These visits became yet another form of abuse, as Ms. Sampson routinely threatened to not let me see my father, and quite often carried through on the threat. By the time I was thirteen I’d had enough of the whole situation. I knew now life wasn’t supposed to be filled with so much psychological and physical torture. Even if my father wouldn’t or couldn’t let me live with him, I chose to live on the streets rather than suffer any more abuse. One day after getting a radio slammed against my head something in me snapped. I was no longer a Sampson, I would no longer live with them. I would rather die on my own at 13 than live another second with them. Early one morning I walked away from the Sampson home as fast as my legs could carry me.
After a few days living on the street I contacted my father. He came for me immediately not knowing if it would cause him legal problems. I would finally be with someone who loved me and actually made an effort to care for me. At some point my father told me how a private investigator had turned up evidence the Sampsons had paid the judge $10,000 to approve the adoption, the same $10,000 I had been told about repeatedly when I was younger. Well they got my sister out of it, that’s what they wanted. This little Indian boy was gone, never to be abused again.
My father was tall and he filled a room with more than his stature when he entered. He had a persona that outsized even his 6’5” frame. He had a tremendous sense of humor and could have a whole room laughing in no time. Yet, he had his demons, growing up in his generation, being made ashamed of his heritage, having his son taken from him. He had a fury about him that could emerge in a millisecond. But it wasn’t born of hate, only the things he had also been denied. My father elicited love from everyone who met him. He was loved and admired by family, friends, and his business associates. Years later, on his passing, his funeral would be massive, with hundreds in attendance.
My father taught me the beatings and verbal abuse had not been my fault, the first time I had heard that. Slowly I developed pride in who I was and who I came from. Things between my father and I weren’t always perfect, as we were frighteningly alike. But there was love there. Love to spare. I met my other relatives, who showered me with acceptance. I learned the first aspects of my heritage, and would later pursue them on my own to the point of speaking Cherokee and being active in the American Indian community and participating in events all over Indian Country.
I went to college, and finished my degree in the Army. I am the first member of my family to ever graduate high school and college. I jumped out of airplanes and went to combat multiple times. I became a decorated combat veteran. I took part in events that mattered. I wasn’t a nobody and I mattered. I learned firsthand what it means to be Indian in this generation at this time in the United States. I learned how many in this country feel about Indian people and Indian rights.
Later, as I grew more politically aware and active, I took part in standoffs with the federal government on Indian land. I’ve been chased, shot at, and at times wanted for being an Indian that upheld the law. That little boy taken all those years ago, became an unidentified Indian male to law enforcement. But I am not unidentified. I am a human being. I am an American Indian. I am a Sundancer first pierced by Russell Means. I am of Delaware and Cherokee blood. I have earned the title of Warrior on the battlefield and in ceremony. I wear it proudly. I am not worthless.
Most importantly, I am a father now, and I know the importance of praising a child, and lifting children up to make them proud of who they are and who they come from. The welfare of American Indian children have become a focal point of my life. Even though the Indian Child Welfare Act (ICWA) was passed in 1978 to prevent the stealing and adopting of Indian children, we all have sadly learned in the years just prior to this writing, that these practices continue and ICWA is in dire need of strengthening. Obviously we cannot let down our guard. The Indian wars are not over.
And so I go forth as a writer, activist, and organizer in my community. I continue to battle the ghosts of years of abuse and neglect. For the most part I have been victorious but the war is never really won. Spending time in Indian communities are constant reminders of the policies born of colonialism and genocide. I’m 47 now and I still wake up from nightmarish remembrances that unleash themselves on my subconscious. These things are what have made me, for better or worse. It is up to me, it is up to all of us, to make sure they never repeat themselves.