TERRY NISKA WATSON (White Earth Anishinabe)
A deep blue sky with a few fluffy white clouds, warm summer air scented with the smell of fresh cut grass, wind whipping in my ears, I swung ever higher in the squeaky chain suspended swing. I was imagining that I was flying, I suppose, because I still remember the sound of the light plane flying overhead as I flew faster and faster hoping to attain Everest-like heights. I was hopelessly, deliriously happy basking in the warm summer air in my favorite place on earth, the outdoors. This was my first memory, as a young child, living in a foster home in the suburbs of Minneapolis, Minnesota and it remains in my mind as a pleasant one, primarily because of the feeling of freedom and carefreeness of childhood. It is with all likelihood that I had already faced very traumatic events, due to my removal from the only home I had ever known or perhaps it was the loss of my mother and father, but on that stellar day of swinging, I was happy and as free as a bird. I am not sure how old I was, where I lived, where my family was, and there are no photos to commemorate that day. Today, after almost fifty years, I cling to these cloudy memories as one might hold onto a tattered faded photo of a loved one from days gone by. These are the only things I have left from my childhood, an entire chapter torn from a book that can never be rewritten, gone.
I long for reinforcement to my scattered memories, looking at old faded photos when I was being evaluated for adoption around age three or four. Is that an address I see in the background of the grainy 1960’s photo? I examine it with a magnifying glass, I search the internet and it is all in vain. Is there some tiny particle of the child I was, lurking there in the few mementos I have gleaned from my foster home days? Who was I? Where did I come from and WHO did I come from? These are things that many people may take for granted, the cute soft baby birth photo, photos of the beaming parents holding the newfound joy or photos of first steps, new shiny baby teeth or visits to Santa. As an adoptee, those things are locked up, sealed, destroyed and removed from our lives forever, but like a missing puzzle piece, and it leaves many like me feeling different and incomplete. But, one thing that can never be taken away is who we really are, the bloodlines we came from and the right to have distant and yes, pleasant memories of who we used to be before we were given to someone else.
Who am I?
What is a deceptively simple question turns into one of confusion and sometimes pain for the adoptee. I have spent years wondering who I was, aside from the simple facts such as I am a woman, with dark brown hair, dark brown eyes, olive skin and a pot belly, thank you middle age! I wondered if my sister, adopted with me, was really my sister. We were dressed alike, had the same boxy 1960’s hair styles, one that looked like a bowl had been placed over our heads, but could I be really sure? After all, my adoptive mother told me a lot of things about myself over the years about my biological family, my history, and the fact that I was adopted. Many stories were conflicting, causing me great confusion as a child. I found myself being torn between loyalty to my adoptive parents and the desire to know who my birth parents were, who I was forced to become and who I was, and what I was expected to be and who I became.
I was drawn to the peacefulness of the woods and loved the sound of the wind murmuring in the pines. I would often find myself sitting under a big pine tree on a bed of soft needles, looking up at the sky and it helped me find my peace, my center. This place brought me peace when I was hurting and allowed me to feel like somehow I was connected to the earth, the wind and everything that nature had to offer. Was this a way of my ancestors, were they watching over me, like guardian angels? I may never know, but what I do know, is that to this day, I am still drawn to those Minnesota woods and the peace that they give me.
I was born in 1961 to a Norwegian woman, Dolores Stolson Murray and her husband, Louis Thomas Murray in Minneapolis. According to the history I was given by the Children’s Home Society & Family Services, I lived with my mother and father in the Minneapolis area until March of 1963. According to my sister Elizabeth, our maternal grandmother drove by to check on my sister Jody and I and found that we were sitting on the curb unsupervised on a busy street. Apparently, she notified the county and we were taken away, due to our parent’s inability to take care of their children. Earlier, my sister Elizabeth and my brother Frank were also removed and put up for adoption. We also have another sister whose whereabouts are unknown at this time.
I was adopted by a nice white family from the suburbs of Minnetonka, who were relatively new to suburban living. Both of my adoptive parents where from a humble background, raised in a traditional way, which could be viewed as very strict by today’s standards. My dad’s name was Harvey, he was 100% Finnish, strong and tall, stubborn but gentle as a kitten. I spent many hours alongside my dad, watching him in his workshop, honing his skills as a carpenter. He worked long hard hours to provide for his family as a union finish carpenter, but he always seemed to have energy enough to spend showing me some new project he had built. He taught me about basic carpentry, loading ammunition, hunting, cleaning fish and my favorite thing in the world, fishing. I spent many hours on Palmer Lake, near Park Rapids, Minnesota, sitting in an aluminum boat, not having to say a word, just at peace with the world fishing with my dad. Overall, I am proud to say that my adoptive dad taught me many things that I still enjoy today and instilled strong values, a great work ethic and a sense of family that I still carry with me today. My adoptive dad passed away not so long ago and I still miss him; he was the father my natural father couldn’t be. Although many adoptees have suffered at the hands of their parents, I can say with all certainty that my father was heaven sent and a true blessing in my life.
My mother, Charlotte, was the polar opposite of my adoptive dad. She was strong, opinionated, domineering and sometimes downright mean. She picked on my older sister, Jody, and was convinced that my sister was pure evil. Due to the fact that my adoptive mom knew that my birth mother was schizophrenic, my mother did everything she could to convince herself and others that my sister just wasn’t right in the head. She really expected nothing but pure perfection from her kids and she tried to control everything we did. Needless to say, once I got to the age of experimentation, I did a lot of really stupid things, like drinking and driving, drugs, and I can’t even discuss my love life. I was so bent on trying everything that mom forbade us to do, that I am probably lucky to be alive.
I married in my mid-twenties, I think just to get out of the house, and it failed miserably at six months, due to my partner’s infidelity prior to marriage. When I found out, I left him and set out on another search for Mr. Right. It was then that I met Mr. Wrong and lived twelve horrible years under his abusive reign. I had a wonderful son, who I cherished and eventually left the marriage to obtain my RN, so that I could care for him properly and remove him from a horribly dysfunctional family life. After a period of time had passed, I healed enough to meet and marry my husband, who is my soul mate and best friend. We were blessed with another child, my son William, who keeps me young and alive, so my life has improved vastly over the early years.
My Birth Family
My birth mother was born schizophrenic and never worked, according to my adoption records. She was from a large Norwegian family and much of the family history has been researched by sister, Elizabeth Blake. My father is more of a mystery, but from what I do know, he was an enrolled member of the White Earth Chippewa tribe of Minnesota, Mississippi band. He was raised by a paternal great aunt and her husband, who I assume had the Murray surname. Apparently his mother, Josephine (Rice) Murray/ Maydwayausung died young and his father, George Murray could not take care of him. He had a brother, whose name I do not know either, but I am investigating every lead I can get.
My father worked in the CCC camps and then joined the Army in 1950 and served until 1954, where he received a Korean Service ribbon, United Nations Service medal, Army of Occupation (Germany), Defense service medal and a Meritorious Unit Commendation. He was a paratrooper part of the time and he reenlisted in 1955, according to adoption records, but no military service records reflect this. He also received monetary compensation as a disabled veteran and this carried over into our lives as adoptees, as we got some financial help with school for a few short years. It is unfortunate that apparently, my birth father became an alcoholic, what led up to this, I will never know.
I have gleaned some information from the Children’s Home Society paper-work which states “the birthfather reluctantly concluded that he and the birthmother could not care for their children and that the best plan for them would be commitment as wards of the state. He was most unwilling to think in terms of adoption and could not discuss this rationally. He became depressed and denied that the problem had to be solved that way.” The same paperwork goes on to elaborate, “It appeared to the caseworker that the birthfather could accept guardianship just as he had the foster home placement simply because he recognized that his children needed care. But he wanted to believe that he could still call them his own and that he was their father.” I find this very sad and disheartening to think that my father tried to be a father and was told he couldn’t. Because of my birthmother’s confirmed schizophrenia and inability to care for us, he lost his will and his right to father his own children—was this what made him dive deeper into the drink? One can never be sure and this bothers me: I am so sorry, Father.
What one can take away from my story is that I may have been deprived of a relationship with my birth parents, but I believe I am relatively unscathed. I don’t abuse drugs; yes, I have thoughts of suicide earlier in my life; I do drink wine to excess sometimes; but overall, I am pretty intact mentally and physically. I have gotten over my abandonment issues, feelings of low self-worth, and codependent behavior, and none of it was easy, but I feel stronger for having lived such a life. I have talents that my parents gave me, like artistic talents, a compassionate heart, a passion for living well, not just existing but being happy and bringing joy to others. I love to laugh, be silly and enjoy what God has given me and I appreciate life.
I know my father still watches over me; I think about him often—who he would have been had circumstances been different. He gave me life and the native blood that runs through my veins and nobody can take that away. Yes, I am wanting to rejoin my tribe, but I am afraid, I don’t know where I belong. I am hoping to be welcomed with open arms someday and be taught the traditions I was deprived of. These answers and many more are waiting for me and many of the other split feathers.
So I leave you with this illustration I painted years ago when I was in a very dark place in my life. This is a painting of a subject matter that has always drawn my interest that is the Native life and the beauty of tradition, family and nature. As my sister, Elizabeth, said about this painting that still hangs on my wall, when she stated, “the most interesting part is that the face is not visible. That is how it is when you do not know your birth family.”
I also have a blood relative on my dad’s side that I have met; her name is Vera Murray. She invited me to a Pow Wow so that is an important step.
I also look forward to meeting my wonderful sister, Elizabeth Blake (in this book) in person this fall. My goal is to help her become enrolled as a rightful member of the White Earth Anishinabe. She has been denied that right, due to the fact that she was born before our parents were legally married. This is another injustice that I hope we can overcome.
Terry’s artwork is featured on the cover of the new anthology STOLEN GENERATIONS: Survivors of the 60s Scoop and Indian Adoption Projects (vol. 3) (ISBN: 978-0692615560)