Return to Dawnland
I Am Passamaquoddy
“Even a happy life cannot be without a measure of darkness, and the word happy would lose its meaning if it were not balanced by sadness. It is far better take things as they come, along with patience and equanimity.”
To say that my life didn’t turn out the way that I had hoped it would is quite an understatement. My 54 years of life have been filled with a series of traumas and losses that many will not have to face in a lifetime. At thirty-two, I began supporting my husband during his battle with prostate cancer that lasted for more than a decade. During that time I guided and comforted our three sons who spent more than half of their childhood watching their Dad fight, and then succumb to that dreaded disease. They were forced to witness their father lose his eyesight to misdiagnosed strokes and lose most of his hearing from a tumor pressing on a nerve in his face. They were witness to the horrific seizures that he experienced in the last few months of his life.
As if life hadn’t sent enough bad luck my way, I endured the trauma of having my eldest son assaulted and shot three times in the back, just five years after my husband died. I walked beside my son during his year-long recovery. Following my son’s ordeal, I lost a number of relatives in a three-year span. I was beside my 23-year-old niece when she lost her life to cervical cancer. I was with my 98-year-old mother-in-law when she drew her last breaths.
I cared for both of my adoptive parents for the last four years of their lives with little or no help from their biological children. Words cannot adequately convey how painful it was to watch my adoptive mother’s mind taken over by Alzheimer’s, and my father’s by vascular dementia. I witnessed their deaths seven weeks apart in the spring of 2016.
While all of those events were traumatic and life changing, I don’t think anything has impacted my life more than being taken away from my biological family at birth. Not only was I taken away from those who shared my DNA, I was removed from my culture, from the songs, dances, beliefs, practices and language of my ancestors. I felt and still feel as if I was kidnapped at birth and held hostage for many years. I was taken from a way of life, and from a way of thinking that is, and always has been, at the core of who I am as a human being.
I was ripped from my mother’s arms shortly after my birth due to racial indifference and because of the hatred that my white grandfather had for my father who was a member of the Passamaquoddy Tribe of Maine. My biological mother only got to see me briefly before I was whisked away, and she was sentenced to a lifetime of despair and regret.
My Passamaquoddy father was never given the opportunity to know that I existed or to say whether he wanted to raise me or not. He didn’t have a voice in where his eldest daughter would spend her childhood. He was ignored and dismissed as someone who was unimportant. Though he was mentioned in my adoption record numerous times, he was not told about me before I was stolen from him, and from the life that should have been mine. The life that I wish had been mine.
In 1964, I was failed by the child welfare system that made no attempt to keep me within my culture. There was nothing in place at that time to protect Passamaquoddy children, as the Indian Child Welfare Act (ICWA) was not put into place until 1978. Had I been born after that date, my life might have been different. There might have been a concerted effort to find my father or at the very least to make sure that I was raised within the culture. Instead, I didn’t find my way home for 25 years.
I was a quarter of a century old before I learned my mother or father’s names for the first time, and before I would know the circumstances surrounding my birth. It took that many years for the lifelong question, “Is she part Indian?” to be answered. It was then when I came to know the real reason why I was abandoned at birth. It was because my grandfather “wanted nothing to do with that black bastard’s baby.” It was a phrase that he had no problem using during the first of the only two visits that I had with him and my grandmother before I realized that it was not healthy for me to interact with them
When I found out that I was a member of the Passamaquoddy Tribe, it was the first time that I had ever heard the name of the tribe even though I was raised only two and a half hours from the reservation where my father and his family lived. I had no idea there were four tribes in Maine, let alone their names.
Looking back, I am not sure why I waited so long to try to find my biological family. I suppose it was because it took me that many years to get up the courage to talk with my adopted parents about my adoption. I didn’t want to hurt my mother, so I kept my longing on the back burner for many years until a few months before my 25th birthday, when I made a conscious decision to begin my search.
My adoption had always been a taboo subject with my adoptive mother. She was of the mindset that there were some things that you just didn’t talk about. My adoption was one of those things. She was my mother and that was all that needed to be said or known. And when my first adoptive father walked out the door one day when I was eight and never came back, that was never talked about either. When I was adopted a second time by my stepfather, I was told to think of him as my one and only father.
I learned early on that it upset my mother a great deal if I ever brought up being adopted. She made me feel shameful for wanting to know anything about my background, so I had spent the first 25 years of my life not knowing anything about how I came to be. I didn’t know my time of birth or my birth weight. While I knew that I was “part Indian,” I had no idea what tribe that I might have come from.
My adoption helped to heal my mother’s broken heart. Bringing me home was such a joyous occasion to her after previously losing two babies that she had carried for nine months. I had always held a special place in my mother’s heart. I knew that she had already suffered so much in her life that I did not want to add to her suffering. I didn’t want to hurt my mother, but at the same time I could no longer bear my own pain of not knowing.
As a mother with three small children, I was concerned about the medical backgrounds of my biological parents and grandparents. That was the main driving force behind me wanting to find them; but underneath all of that, I had always wanted to find my parents and to meet my family, so that I might know who I was and where I came from. It is something that we all want and deserve to know.
Adoptees are a group of people who are often kept from knowing the details of their conception and births or from knowing their genealogy. Back in the eons of time, someone in their infinite wisdom thought that it was a good idea to lie to or to withhold the most basic information from adoptees about their birth and their parents. Rather than be open and honest about our origins, stories are created to explain how we came to be placed in our adopted families. Often only one side of the story is known by the adoptee.
The narrative that I heard from my adoptive family was that my mother had carried two babies full-term, only to have them both die within the first day caused by the fact that my mother had RH factor. A treatment for this was not available back in the fifties and early sixties as there are today, so every pregnancy came with great risks. My mother wanted a child with her second husband, but after losing two babies, she did not want to put herself through that trauma again.
She and my first adoptive father decided that adoption was the best route for them after losing a son. They told me that they picked me because I was “the most beautiful baby” at the adoption agency. I had jet black hair and was dark-skinned, a description that was used throughout my adoption record. My adoptive mother’s story was simple and straightforward, but that was the only part of my story that I knew until May of 1989, when I found both of my biological parents and learned the rest of my story.
There are adoptees who will never be told that they are adopted, while others may have an in- depth knowledge about their origins. Some will not learn the important details of their conception until they take the plunge to locate those who gave them life, as I did. Even if I had possessed the courage to ask my mother about my adoption when I was younger, she had few details about my birth parents or about why I was put up for adoption. In order for those questions to be answered, I had to find them both.
Those of us who are adopted who are also biracial have an added whammy. Many of us are not told the race of our parents so we may go through life thinking of ourselves as one race, only to find out later that we are biracial. For the first 25 years of my life, I considered myself Caucasian because my adopted parents were white, as were ninety-nine percent of the people around me. I was raised far removed from either of the two Passamaquoddy reservations and from my cultural heritage.
Though I was asked, too many times to count, if I was “part Indian,” I was raised learning all of the unfair and inaccurate stereotypes and generalizations about Native Americans. I grew up on a small island on the coast of Maine where the population was primarily Caucasian. As a child I was teased and tormented on the playground at school and on the bus, especially during the warmer months when my skin was much darker.
For years one of my classmates taunted me with countless racial slurs. He often called me Squaw or Pocahontas, Injun or Redskin. Sometimes he called me Cherokee and made whooping sounds with his hand over his mouth. When I told my teachers about these names, their reply was that I was being “too sensitive.” My concerns were dismissed, so right from the start, school never felt like a safe place.
On the school bus older students bullied me about being adopted. They told me often that no one wanted me at birth because I was part Indian and that no one wanted Indians around. They made me feel “less than” because I was not fully white. I grew up thinking that it was a bad thing to be Native American, that it wasn’t something to be proud of or to admit to. This was compounded by the fact that I was raised in the sixties and seventies watching westerns on TV. I grew up thinking all of the wrong things about my ancestors. I only knew the textbook and Hollywood version of our history, so I viewed Indians as savages, drunks and lazy.
I thought of myself as a “cowboy” as a young child. I had a complete cowboy outfit that I wore at home and at school. I thought nothing of spending my school recesses pretending to be a cowboy trying to round up all of the “bad Indians” to kill them. I can only begin to imagine what all of that did to my psyche, wondering whether I was part of a race that the people around me seemed to hate and distrust. The images and accounts found in westerns were not factual, and had a strong bias that was not based on fact.
Added to my confusion my about my identity was the fact that animal crackers in the sixties contained cookies with various farm animals. Also included with all of the animals in the box were Indians in headdresses. It was implied that Natives were like animals. I remember looking through the box of crackers as a child, being consciously aware of the subliminal message, which only added to my distress. What kind of a message did that send to me and other Native children? That Indians were animals? That I was part animal?
I remember as a preteen having such a difficult time trying to reconcile all this in my mind. If what people said were true, then was I somehow less than everyone else around me? I wondered if that was why sometimes I was treated differently because I wasn’t fully white. If Indians were bad, did that mean that I was too? The teasing got so bad that I eventually cut my long, black hair when I was around 12 so that I wouldn’t look quite as “Indian.” I was 51 before I decided to reclaim that part of me that I had consciously tried to subdue.
In 2013, I grew my hair out for several years just to have closure for the younger me who had cut her hair for all the wrong reasons, as she tried her best to fit in with her white peers. All I wanted to do back then was to just blend in with everyone else so that I wouldn’t always feel so different. Excelling in sports ultimately helped me find my place among others. The better I got at sports, the less I was harassed about being biracial. By the time I graduated from high school, I loved the fact that I had the best tan of all my friends and that others were jealous about my beautiful brown skin. It took nearly 18 years to feel that way.
I felt as if I owed it to my inner child to bring things full circle, so instead of being ashamed of those things that made me feel different, I could embrace them as an adult. Growing my hair out became part of my spiritual practice. As my braid grew longer and longer, I began to feel stronger and stronger. I have since cut my hair, but from 2013 to 2018, I only cut my hair once. It grew to my waistline. Eventually I decided to cut it because it took a great deal of work when it got that long, and with my busy schedule I wanted a hairstyle that would be easy to manage.
In my childhood, there were months when I could easily blend in, so it was harder for people to know that I was biracial. The same still holds true today. Not to steal a song lyric, but I see the world from both sides now. I view the world differently than in the first 25 years of my life, before I knew I was Passamaquoddy and thought of myself as Caucasian. This has given me a unique outlook on life.
Like most Natives from New England, I am lighter-skinned in the winter months because we get less sun in the northeast in the cold, dark months of winter. Our skin color is much lighter compared to those tribes who have year-round sun exposure. For many of us up north, it is much easier to blend in during the winter months when you can forgo some of the questions we get asked about our skin color during the summer months when we are three to four shades darker. That change in skin color was what set me apart during my childhood from most of my peers.
When I searched for my parents, I had none of the modern technology that we have now. All that I had to help me in my search back then was the name of my mother, a phone book, the US postal system and my strong determination to find both parents. The process took more time than it would have taken today with all of the search and communication options that we have available to us.
How I found my parents isn’t as important as the emotional process that I went through, and am still going though, once I found them. The details of my search have faded over time. The experience of “going home” is still fresh in my mind and is the real story. The short of it all is that it took me less than two weeks to locate my mother in Richmond, Virginia in 1989. It was another two weeks before I knew my father’s name, and another week before I had confirmation from him that he could indeed by my father. Three months after first contacting him, I met my siblings and the rest of my family. My father, Wayne Newell, had needed time to sort it all out in his mind.
Once I found my parents, I began hearing “the rest of the story.” In my mother’s first letter to me, she laid out the details of my conception and birth. My mother was 14 when she became pregnant, and 15 when I was born. My mother had loved my father, deeply but my grandfather’s contempt for the Passamaquoddy people, his racial beliefs and his unwillingness to look beyond skin color forever changed the course of my life. Because of that hatred, I will never know the person that I might have become had I been raised within my culture, and had I known my parents at birth.
My white grandfather took that from me because of his intense hatred toward the group of people who have been here the longest, and who have ultimately sacrificed more than any other group of people on this continent. Half of my ancestry is made up of people who had to fight for their survival and who were nearly wiped off the face of the earth. The other half is made up of people who were filled with hatred, who felt superior, who stole land, took lives and who never gave any of it a second thought.
One side of my family was oppressed, mistreated, uprooted, murdered and sickened, while the other side of my DNA were the oppressors, the perpetrators of these despicable acts. It was difficult to reconcile that knowledge and to make sense of it all. I had grown up questioning my worth as I wrestled with the knowledge that I was likely “part Indian.” When I found out the truth of my lineage, it wasn’t my Native side that caused me to have concern, it was my white ancestry that brought me the most distress because of their hatred and cruelty.
It was a challenge to not be overcome with anger and hatred toward my white grandfather, and toward a discriminatory welfare system that took me from my father and from the rich cultural heritage that had been passed through the generations for thousands of years. Because of what took place directly following my birth, there was a break in the transfer of that information to me and my descendants. I was disconnected from my ancestry at birth, so I wasn’t grounded in the teachings and traditions of those who walked before me. Prior to meeting my Passamaquoddy family, I had always felt displaced. I didn’t feel like I belonged anywhere.
As I began to reconnect with those things that had been taken from me at birth, I started to feel a sense of belonging that I had never felt before. I no longer felt so disconnected and displaced as I learned more about who I was and where I came from. I hadn’t just been cheated out of being a part of my biological family, I had also not been allowed to be a part of my tribe which is really an extended family.
I testified before the Maine Wabanaki-State Welfare Truth and Reconciliation Commission in January of 2015. The commission was founded in 2012, primarily to collect stories of those who were adopted out as babies, as well as those who were removed from their families as young children and were placed into foster care or were sent away to Indian boarding schools. These stories were collected and evaluated in order for recommendations to be made to ensure positive changes to how the Maine child welfare system treats the placement of Native children.
I felt compelled to share my story in hopes that other Passamaquoddy children wouldn’t have to go through what I had gone through as a child, and that I continue to experience as an adult. To quote from my testimony to the commission, “The life of an adoptee is a lifelong struggle. It is not something that you ever get over.” Finding my way back was the easy part; trying to come to know myself as a Passamaquoddy woman took time and is still unfolding.
At first, all that I knew were my immediate family members and a few close friends of the family. I lived an hour and a half from each of the two Passamaquoddy reservations and couldn’t get to either often. I had a young family to tend to, so it took some time to develop relationships within my family and within the tribe. For a long time, I felt as if I was standing outside looking in through the window. I was allowed to be there among them as long as I stood on the fringes. I didn’t feel as if I fully belonged because there was so much that I didn’t know.
I began to seek out any opportunity that I could to learn as much as possible about the culture, the teachings and the traditions. I read whatever I could find and began asking questions. Less than a year after I found my way back to the tribe, I stood on the top of Cadillac Mountain in Acadia National Park at sunrise, as representatives from the four tribes of Maine conducted an Earth Day ceremony. It was the first time that I heard the beat of the drum, although as soon as I heard it, I felt as if I had heard it for my entire life.
I stood there watching the new day begin as tears fell from my eyes in a steady stream. I became overcome with gratitude that, by some power far greater than I could comprehend, I had been brought to that place on the mountain where I was able to hear the songs of my ancestors. Since that time I have learned many of those songs, and I have overcome my timidness to stand beside the drum and sing. I have found healing in the songs and I feel very connected to the drum and to those who sing around it.
After the initial honeymoon period was over in the first year, I had an emotional breakdown of sorts. I began to drink heavily because I felt so much pain inside. Once I saw what I had missed out on growing up, I had to find a way to accept that my life had played out the way that it did. I went through a period of intense anger where I lashed out at my biological family.
For a time my relationship with them was very strained. I wanted more from them than they could give to me at the time. Even though they had accepted me, I often felt like a second-class citizen when I was among them. I resented the fact that they had all had the privilege of knowing each other, while I had spent all of those years not knowing them. They hadn’t known about me so they hadn’t given me a second thought, while I had spent a lifetime thinking about and imagining them.
I checked myself into an inpatient facility a couple of years after I found them and stayed for several weeks. I had to reach out for emotional and psychological help as I tried to make sense of it all. I had fallen into a deep depression as I didn’t know how to process everything that I felt inside. I didn’t have anyone to talk to, because I didn’t know any adoptees who had found their biological families as I had done. I didn’t know any other Passamaquoddy people who had found their way back after adoption at birth, so I felt alone and isolated.
At some of the holiday celebrations within my newfound family, my children were treated different from the other grandchildren. I remember the pain that I felt one Easter, when all of the other grandchildren in the family got huge Easter baskets but no one got anything for my children. I felt so sad for them as they sat there in disbelief trying to understand why the other children were all gleefully opening their baskets, and they had none. I didn’t speak to my family for a long time after that, mostly because they just didn’t get how hurtful that had been to me and my children.
As a parent there are few things more difficult to witness than when our children are hurting. Excluding them that day caused them pain and in turn hurt me. It shows that when Native children are taken away at birth, it is not just the adopted child who is impacted but future generations are impacted as well. The trauma of disconnection becomes generational. As my children grew older, they had lots to work out in their minds as well. I wasn’t the only one who had lost out on my cultural heritage. They had been disconnected from theirs as well.
The force that brought us all back together was my husband’s diagnosis of terminal prostate cancer in 1996. That time period is such a blur, so I don’t recall exactly how we reconnected; but I know it was because of my husband’s diagnosis. If cancer has any positives, it’s that it can bring families together, as was the case in this situation. As my husband began to fight for his life, the reasons I had distanced myself from them all faded away. It caused all of us to reevaluate our relationships and to think about what is important in life.
While I supported my husband over the following 10 and a half years, I found the most comfort in those times when I sought out opportunities to experience those practices that had been passed through my bloodline. My first sweat lodge became life-changing. As I prayed and sang in the lodge, I visualized the toxicity of my life being purified as the sweat emptied from my pores. I was cleansed and reborn. I felt connected in a way that I had never felt before. Each sweat that I have done since then has brought me closer to the source of all life.
During the past 29 years, I have done as much as I could to learn what I didn’t know growing up. I have spent countless hours reading and researching our history, and talking to elders and other knowledgeable people within the tribe. I have hung on their every word as if my life depended on it. I have joined in numerous sacred canoe trips from our fresh water reservation to the salt water one, following the same route as our ancestors did. It has brought healing to me. Standing beside the drum and feeling the beats vibrate throughout my being has also healed my weary soul as I tried to imagine what my life would be like now had I not found my way home.
The Indian Child Welfare Act didn’t help in my situation, because I was born before it was enacted, but it has helped countless Native children since its passing. Recently in the news, it was reported that steps to dismantle ICWA were underway as it declared unconstitutional and unlawful by the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Texas. This ruling disregarded the years of progress that have been made in the treatment and welfare of Native children. Luckily the rule was overturned. If this act is further decimated, Native children will once again be placed outside the culture with little thought to the trauma that this causes them.
When the news came out about this ruling, my youngest brother, Christopher, wrote to me and shared his anguish. It was the first time that he had expressed to me the feelings of loss that my adoption had caused him. He has been so impacted by that loss that he became involved in the making of the recent documentary film called Dawnland which chronicles the history of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, and that begins to tell the stories of those who have been taken away.
Ironically, the first time in my 54 years of life that I actually went to a movie with my little brother was when we went to the east coast premiere of that movie in Boston in the spring of 2018. For most siblings, going to a movie together isn’t a big deal, but when you have been robbed of those experiences as children, there is a deep sense of loss for all involved. In turn, there is a great feeling of gratitude when you are able to experience those things that you couldn’t as children.
When I testified, I had hoped that my testimony would help strengthen the rules and regulations around the placement of Native babies and children here in Maine. I felt encouraged by the final report of the commission, and by the recommendations that they made to state and tribal government in how to place Native children within the state welfare system. This latest ruling could have taken us backwards in the progress that has been made over the past few decades, and it could have potentially taken us back to a time where the needs and best interest of Native children were not taken into account. This frightens me and causes me great heartbreak because the road that I have traveled to find my way home has not been an easy one. It is a journey that no Native child should have to take.
I have come to accept how my life has played out. After years of wrestling with it all I came to a place when I realized that if one thing had been different, I would not have met my husband and my children would not exist. Though it was a rough road to travel, my life has unfolded just as it should. I wish some things had gone differently but rather than dwell on what could have been and what might have been, I must find happiness and gratitude in the fact that I found my way home when so many others have not. I am committed to do whatever I can to make sure that ICWA remains intact.
Because of the things that I have experienced, I have a deeper understanding of who I am and of my place in this world. There is a richness to my life that would not be present had I not walked this path. Without some of the bad times, I wouldn’t appreciate the good times as much as I do. I have found meaning and purpose in my life despite all that has been thrown at me. I believe I have been given strength by my ancestors who endured so much trauma and heartache.
As I continue on this journey through life I try as best as I can trying to honor them and the sacrifices that they made. It is nothing short of a miracle that we have survived as a people, that I have survived and found my way back to them. I never lose sight of that simple fact. It is a miracle that I am alive today and that I can say I am proud to call myself Passamaquoddy. It is who I am and who I always have been.
How blessed that I have been to be able return to Dawnland.
Wendy Newell Dyer's Biography
Wendy was put up for adoption at birth due to racial indifference and was raised in a non-native family on a small island on the coast of Maine. At the age of twenty-five, she located her biological parents. After her husband’s prostate cancer diagnosis in 1996, she went to college and graduated magna cum laude from the University of Maine at Machias in 2003. She then became full-time caregiver to her husband who died in 2007. Together they homeschooled their three sons. Wendy testified before the Maine Truth and Reconciliation Commission in 2015. She helped write educational materials for the Maine Coalition to Fight Prostate Cancer and recently won a national writing contest sponsored by the Prostate Cancer Foundation for a piece on care giving. Two of her stories have been chosen to appear in upcoming "Chicken Soup for the Soul" books. Wendy has written for several newspapers and magazines. When she’s not writing, she enjoys traveling to see her three grandsons, climbing mountains, working on her property, and taking long hikes with her black lab Jackson Liam.