Being Indian: A Memory

By Susan Devan Harness October 29, 2013  |  Internships, Nonfiction, Publishing, Writing  |  no responses

 The American West is stunningly beautiful. Its images, quilted together, form a landscape that can be brought to mind with the aroma of pine that stings my nostrils, the feel of soil between my fingers, the sound of a waterfall or the taste of chokecherry jelly that my mom used to make in August. To me everything about the West is alluring. It is where I seek to return after travels have taken me elsewhere. It is familiar: it is people, it is culture, and it is a bitterly painful history. And it is this history that I, as an American Indian transracial adoptee, can’t escape. Ever.

It is 1966 and I am standing on the lowland near the Bitterroot River, where the soil is rarely moistened by the gently moving water. I am seven and wearing a sleeveless shirt and shorts. My hair, flighty and fine, is pulled back into a dark brown ponytail.

“Here,” my adoptive father says as he moves me from place to place, his hands on my shoulders, guiding me, forcing me while my feet stumble on the rocks that are too big and rounded to rest smoothly against one another. “Sit here. Stand over there.” Always, the Bitterroot Mountains laced by cottonwoods are my backdrop.

My father takes his shovel that he has brought with him and places the head into the rocky earth near a soft pink flower. With his foot, he forces the blade in, uprooting the plant with its papery petals, lifting it from its home. He is careful to keep as much of the soil around its branched roots as he can, but little by little the soil falls away as he transfers the plant into my small hands.

“Hold this. It’s a Bitterroot,” he says, stepping back as he looks into the square box at the top of the camera whose two perpendicular eyes stare at me from the front. He checks the small brown light sensor in his right hand. “Smile.” He snaps. He frowns and looks at me through the box again. “Smile,” he says, his voice now edged with irritation. “This is the Bitterroot,” he adds by way of explanation. “For the Salish, the tribe you belong to, it is sacred. It has important meaning. Now, kneel down on one knee and smile.” I do, but the rocks dig in to my skin, which barely covers the bone, and the smile I produce is fake. “Do it again, but this time hold the plant away.” “Hold the plant here.” “Hold the plant down and in front of you.” “Stand up.” Always looking into the box, always checking the light meter. The only time he looks at me is to show his irritation of my inability to follow his simple directions. By the time we’re done, that plant doesn’t feel very sacred. I watch him place it back into the hole from which it was extracted, but the soil is now broken, scarred by its removal.

I’ve since learned the plant is sacred for its medicinal properties and high nutritional value, but its most impressive characteristic is the fact that it can withstand drought for several years, during which time it doesn’t bloom. However, when the rains come, these delicate and long petals shoot up and out producing the floral display that I remember vividly. Oh, so many metaphors.

My names are Susan Devan Harness, Susan Jean Devan and Vicky Charmain Rowan. Each of them fits a space in my life, a description of who I was, who I am and the roles I play in my various families: birth family, adopted family and the family I’ve created. The only one I no longer use or even refer to – by choice – is Jean. This name was the whitest name I had.

As Vicky Charmain, I am named after Clara Victoria, my birth mom. My sister, Ronni Marie, is named after our father, Ronny. It is with sadness that I announce that Vicky Charmain is dying, a little bit every year. When I first returned to my reservation family twenty years ago, Vicky Charmain was the name by which I was known, the name that held my place at the family table, the place that sat empty for nearly thirty years. They had no concept of Susan Devan Harness, of who that person was or who she had become. But they did remember Vicky Charmain, the daughter who was taken by the social workers in 1960 at 18 months of age.  It was that daughter, Vicky Charmain, they remembered when I returned in 1993.

I’ve trekked home every year for the past 10 years, and I find that my original name is slowly being erased by time, replaced by the name that holds no memory to these people. And to be honest, its disappearance makes me sad. The metamorphosis is almost complete.

I’m talking with my Aunt Darlene, my birth mom’s youngest sister, and we are sitting in her kitchen. She’d moved away from the reservation over 40 years ago, making her home with her husband, Johnny, in Washington State. She’d moved back last year and I ask if the return has been a difficult transition for her. She thinks for a few moments, looking off into space. Then she shakes her head, a gentle movement, and answers in a soft voice, which carries just a hint of the reservation dialect, “No. Not really.” She pauses. “No. It wasn’t difficult to come home, but it’s different. No one knows me as ‘Doll.’ Everyone now calls me Darlene.” Her mouth carries a wistful smile, and her gaze is shy as she gifts me this realization. “I miss people calling me Doll.”

Although I am just beginning to know Doll, I realize the importance of our commonality: our names are disappearing behind a veil of time, a memory held by family and community. And, like Doll, I smile when I hear the name I was given. However, the only one who uses it is my sister when she’s introducing me to an unfamiliar uncle or to a family friend. “This is Vicky Charmain,” she’ll say. And then she might add, “She’s my sister.” And I breathe a sigh of relief then. Vicky Charmain is not yet dead.

Names are powerful. They are symbols of the known, those things we categorize and list, place in hierarchies and remember. Names reveal ownership. We can also use them to mystify or demystify our world and everything in it, including ourselves.

I knew a woman who, after being molested by her father, changed her name to Sage. Or the woman who felt emotionally abandoned by her family and who actively sought to be known as Artemis. My dad had legally changed his name in his 50s from George to Jedediah, recalling with bitterness and shame the girls who taunted him with the nursery rhyme “Georgie Porgie.”

My sister, Ronni Marie, had been placed at age six into a different non-Native family.  When her adoption took place, Ronni’s adoptive mother gave her a choice of three names.  She chose Rita because it sounded the best of all three.

“But I always thought it was strange,” Ronni said to me the other day, “that of the three names I had to choose from, none of them was my birth name, Ronni Marie.” There’s that wistful smile again.


To grow up in the American West is to constantly be reminded of what it means to be American Indian. Whether it’s the powwows, the advertising billboards, the novels of Louie L’Amour or Larry McMurtry, or the names in all the everyday places we go. Recently, I drove on the Sandcreek Massacre Trail, over the Chief Joseph Highway and through the towns of Cheyenne and Casper, which are named for the American Indian tribe and the lieutenant who went to war with them. On the way to Billings, Mont., I passed a sign on the interstate that announced Garryowen. This private town on the edge of the Little Bighorn Battlefield National Monument is a collection of buildings: a gas station, a restaurant, a defunct museum. Every time I drive past I feel a simmering anger. Garryowen was the nickname given to Custer’s 7th Cavalry Regiment. The Irish tune was played every time he rode into battle, including his last, and this scrap of memory sits in the middle of the Crow Reservation.

These signs are public symbols that carry strong messages of what it means to be American Indian in the West. But there are other memories, subtle memories that pass unnoticed because they draw on romanticized images, reified images that are produced and reproduced over and over and over, developing an unquestioned epistemology.

In the small northern Colorado town of Wellington, just a few miles from where I live, there is a subdivision. Here, developers sought to capture and capitalize on the spirit of the West, romanticized and idealized, where Manifest Destiny is a theme that runs through the story.

At first glance, the street names that wind and curve through this development conjure images both real and long-imagined: White Buffalo Drive, Grizzly Way, Raging Bull Lane and Thundering Herd Way. It calls forth the culture of its people: Spirit Lane, Mystic Lane, Indian Village Drive and Ironhorse Way. It even remembers war leaders: Custer Avenue and Crazy Horse Lane. But then it gets weird, at least from my perspective as an American Indian woman viewing the memorialized world around me. Suddenly, these names sear into memory a visual collage of war, power, ownership and disinheritance: Ambush Drive, Flaming Arrow Avenue, Crossfire Drive and Firewater Lane. And to see the movement from one street to the next adds another disorienting dimension. Spirit Street turns into Firewater Lane. Ambush Drive intersects with Flaming Arrow Drive, which also intersects with Crazy Horse Lane and Firewater Lane.  Ideas and images flow into another: without thought; without hesitation; without a second glance as to what it might really mean; without the city leaders who approved this development, never questioning why this might be offensive to someone like me, to anyone.

Our history is so deeply etched into the social fabric of America that for many people it’s taken for granted. Meaning, it’s not taught; it’s a known. Many people don’t think of the ways in which we’ve been objectified, moved from one place to another, relocated geographically, spiritually and philosophically. We’ve been forced to trade in our knowledge of the world for a different knowledge, one where we are unimportant at best and invisible at worst. Our land has been, and continues to be, legally and illegally stripped away from us by encroachment, by economic pressure, by lawsuits, by corporate interests. Our families have been encroached on as well: our children legally and illegally stripped away and placed into a system where people make room in their lives for other people’s children.

But none of this happened in a vacuum. It happened in culture with a specific history, a social memory of power and dismemberment. However, the story of how it all happened sits shrouded in the world around us. My friends, it’s very visible. You just have to know where to look and how to see it.

© Copyright. Gazillion Voices. 2013. All rights reserved.


Susan Devan Harness

Susan Devan Harness, M.A., is a member of the Salish-Kootenai Confederated Tribes as well as an American Indian transracial adoptee.   Her master’s research in cultural anthropology at Colorado State University examined issues and outcomes of American Indian transracial adoption, and resulted in the book Mixing Cultural Identities Through Transracial Adoption, and is published by Edwin Mellen Press.  Ms. Harness consults nationally and internationally about the unique issues that arise in this type of child placement.  She is currently working towards an M.A. in Creative Non-Fiction at CSU to tell this story from a different perspective.

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