“Imagine a complete NCAA tournament bracket, and picture it with just one space filled in. That’s what 1/64th is.”
I was using the image to explain to my young son what had so upset me about the plight of young Lexi, a 6-year-old girl who on March 21, 2016 was removed by court order from the California home of foster parents Rusty and Summer Page and their three children. She had lived there for four years, after her biological parents were deemed unfit to raise her. From all accounts, the child was devastated.
This is the part that really got me, though — the California Court of Appeals cited the Indian Child Welfare Act of 1978 (ICWA), a federal law, as justification for removing Lexi, who is 1/64th (1.6 percent) Native American. The child is connected to the Choctaw Nation through her father, a registered member of the tribe. She was to be placed with a Utah couple that has taken in her biological sister, and whom she has met; another sister lives near to them, as well. However, this couple is not Native American, but is related to Lexi’s step-grandfather. The National Indian Child Welfare Association nevertheless opined: “The foster family was well aware years ago this girl is an Indian child, whose case is subject to the requirements of the Indian Child Welfare Act…In fact, the only surprising turn of events is the lengths the foster family has gone to, under the advice of an attorney with a long history of trying to overturn ICWA, to drag out litigation as long as possible, creating instability for the child in question.”
When I finished explaining, my son asked me: “So what part Indian am I?”
“About 1/32nd,” I answered.
I told him I was in the Sweet Sixteen.
“So we’re Indians?” he asked.
“I guess we must be,” I said, and then we went back to eating Shabbat dinner, celebrating the Jewish Sabbath as we do every Friday night.
Notwithstanding that fanciful centuries-old myth of the 10 Lost Tribes of Israel being the original inhabitants of North America, Native American DNA does not abound in the genetic makeup of Hebrews like my son, whose unassailable Jewishness is derived from his mother. Among Jews like me, who knows? I was born to an unwed gentile mother and adopted as an infant by a Jewish family, and found out about my Native American roots four years ago when I had my DNA tested. Since I was not genetically Jewish, I had to undergo an Orthodox conversion ritual as a teenager in order to be accepted as a full member of the faith; even so, my status as a Jew remains problematic to some.
I have three big issues with the California court’s decision. As a Jew, I am uneasy with the idea of my government defining an individual’s racial identity by statute and then, facing political pressure by an interest group, using that identity as a pretext for taking control over her life. As an adoptee, I understand that family is a complex, fluid, and fragile high-stakes social arrangement, and the idea that government has used its power to wrench a child away from the only home she likely remembers on the grounds she is 1/64th Native American is heartbreaking. I would feel the same way about Lexi’s predicament even if she was 63/64th Native American.
Finally, as someone who counts among his dear friends two couples (one same sex) who are Jewishly raising adopted children (one Ethiopian and the other Asian), I can imagine what it would be like if authorities showed up at their doorsteps with a court order to take their children on the grounds they be more properly raised according to African, Asian, or heterosexual traditions.
Issues of identity are particularly fraught in the current social climate, in which “identity” is often equated with “legitimacy.” Every day, it seems, one encounters troubling stories like that the dreadlocked Caucasian college student accused of cultural appropriation by an African-American student, and then assaulted. YouTube abounds in videos of possessors of the “wrong” identity being shouted down after expressing their views — anti-Zionist and Boycott, Divestment, and Sanction (BDS) protesters are particularly well represented in these kinds of clips. Certainly, particular types of identity may confer upon their possessors social cachet, or even practical advantage — one of our US senators in Massachusetts is well known for having embraced a (tenuous) Native American connection, perhaps even parlaying it into some kind of career benefit in academia.
Identity politics is a minefield that one enters at his or her peril these days — find a news story online about Lexi and check out the comments thread to see how vehement those on both sides of the issue have gotten — but I’ll take a chance and put one toe inside the danger zone with a personal anecdote.
A few years back, I was talking with my rabbi after Shabbat service. I’d always been open with him about my genetic origins, which do not include a scintilla of recognizably Jewish DNA — aside from the 6.5 percent Native American component of my makeup and genetic markers from Southern Europe and Circumpolar Finland (which probably has some connection to the Indian DNA), more than 80 percent of my genes can be traced to the British Isles. Through family trees posted by my genetic matches in the Family Tree DNA database, I surmise that some of these American roots go back at least to Colonial Virginia in the mid-1600s. My rabbi knows this, but to him, I am a shayner Yid — a dear Jew.
So I was not exactly prepared when he asked me why, when I am called up to witness the reading of the Torah, the name I use is Avraham Dovid ben Chaim, which is to say Abraham David son of Chaim, my adoptive father’s name. I asked him why wouldn’t I? He said it was because it would be customary for me to say Avraham Dovid ben Avraham (son of the patriarch Abraham) because, as he put it, “you are a ger” — which is the Hebrew word denoting a convert, but that literally translates as “stranger” or “sojourner.”
Unaware of the custom, I was taken aback. “Um, I guess because until this moment,” I answered, “I never really thought of myself as a ger.” I was not upset or made insecure by his comment, however. I guess when you get right down to it, a ger is just what I am, notwithstanding the fact that the sole consciousness I possess — cultural, familial, emotional, spiritual, and psychic — is of an Ashkenazi Jew. I feel connected to the history of the Jews, which has nothing to do with me, in a way I will never feel connected to the story of America, though I can trace my roots back to its earliest original and British settlers.
My rabbi apologized if he had offended me — it’s the kind of thing people get offended about, he said. No doubt, the word “stranger,” as well as “convert,” registered uncomfortably when he said “ger,” but I was not in the least offended, and told him that. I knew his commitment to my Jewish journey is sincere, and his thoughts about the matter were the product of his understanding of halacha (Jewish law).
His choice of words did, however, cause me to ruminate a bit about my Jewish identity and motivations. The conclusion I came to is that I practice the faith not because I’m looking for identity, but rather because I’m looking a way to approach matters of ultimate concern. If Judaism is a path that in some ways chose me, it is also one I choose. But in the end, I’m after something much larger than identity.
Lexi is a 6-year-old child who was taken from foster care, where she was fortunate to find shelter in a home with people who love her and cared well for her. To love and be loved is the matter of singular concern for a 6-year-old child. Her purpose in being here is not to be a proper American Indian or to be an agent through which historical wrongs are redressed, no more than it is mine or my son’s — she is here to be nurtured, supported, and made strong and useful by being loved by a family. She was taken away from those who gave her love by our government owing to an identity imposed upon her by 1/64th of her genetic makeup, a happenstance of fate.
In this era of expansive, intrusive, and centralizing bureaucracy, we are accustomed to stories of government working in ways that are pointless and brutish. And while I understand the sensitivities engendered by the historical injustices experienced by my Native American brothers and sisters, I have to say the single-minded callousness of American Indian authorities rankles. Opined representatives of the Choctaw Nation in a statement: “The Pages were always aware that the goal was to place Lexi with her family, and her permanent placement has been delayed due to the Pages’ opposition to the Indian Child Welfare Act. We believe that following the Choctaw Nation’s values is in Lexi’s best interest.”
Choctaw Nation values? I’m sure they do a world of good for enrolled members of the tribe who choose to live them, but they also seem to encompass wrenching a little girl from a place of safety and depositing her into a world of social workers, bureaucrats, institutions, lawyers, and strangers — all in the service of “identity.” Not only that, I’ll venture a guess that opposition to the Indian Child Welfare Act is not the Pages’ primary motivation.
In this era of rancorous discourse about identity and about what precise moral authority it may or may not confer, I wonder where I might derive the privilege to express how I feel about the forces that marshaled to remove Lexi from the Pages’ home.
Is it as a ger, a stranger, who understands the experience of having his historical identity subsumed into a divergent culture, and can yet say, “Nu, that should be my biggest problem”?
Is it as an adoptee raised with an adopted sister by parents not biologically their own, and can testify that family is created by love and not by blood? Is it as someone who cares deeply about his close friends’ multiracial Jewish families?
Is it as a US citizen, troubled that his government is using its power to enforce a statute with a rationale that is patently racialist? Is it as a Jew, for the same reason, but with a darker undertone?
Is it as a Native American? Is it as the father of a Native American child?
How about this? I find it objectionable on every level.
Send the little girl home.
Visit www.SaveOurLexi.com to learn more.