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Raven girl: Adoptive parents work to preserve Alaska Native daughter's culture

  • Author: Paula Dobbyn
  • Updated: September 28, 2016
  • Published March 1, 2015

Haammom'ax. A gift that makes you smile.

It's my daughter's Tsimshian name. She received it last summer at her great-grandparents' home in Southeast Alaska after we met them for the first time earlier that day.

The naming ceremony was my idea. Olive is growing up in Anchorage but she's a daughter of the Tongass -- that fortress of towering spruce, cedar and hemlock, a rainforest that blankets the Southeast panhandle. She's Tsimshian, a member of one of three Alaska tribes that have inhabited the place for thousands of years -- a rugged, bear-infested strip of mountainous coastline, defined by isolated communities, jagged fjords and huge runs of wild salmon.

Olive's biological family is from Metlakatla, a Tsimshian community in the southernmost reaches of the panhandle. As her adoptive mother, I wanted Olive to know this rain-swept place, her blood relatives, her Tsimshian heritage.

I figured it could start with a name.

'Are you ready?'

Olive entered the world on Sept. 1, 2009, born at Mount Edgecumbe Hospital in Sitka.

My husband, John, and I flew down from Anchorage under a full moon, within hours of learning that a young mother had chosen us. The teenage mom had delivered a healthy 6-pound, 10-ounce girl. We were told she wanted to place the child for adoption, and after looking through several portfolios of potential families, she selected us.

As the Alaska Airlines jet descended into Sitka, I felt nauseous with excitement.

Is this really happening?

After landing, we took a taxi to the 1950s-era hospital and stepped inside a dimly lit foyer. Karen, our adoption worker, met us and went over some details about the baby's birth and what we could expect next.

"Are you ready?" she asked.

"Sure," we said in awkward unison.

In truth, I was scared.

We followed Karen upstairs and settled into an empty room in the maternity ward. A woman who turned out to be Olive's grandmother, Vicky, soon walked in, wheeling a bassinet. She scooped up the baby and placed her in my arms.

We looked down at the sleeping infant and then up at one another.

"She's perfect," I said.

Many potential pitfalls

We had completed adoption paperwork six months earlier, seeking to become first-time parents after eight years as a couple. We had traveled extensively and had careers that took us to remote places. It was time to settle down. When biology failed to produce a child, we started exploring adoption. A former newspaper colleague, Kim Rich, had adopted through Catholic Social Services in Anchorage and encouraged me to explore this route.

"You can do this," Kim said.

Besides having twin girls, Kim is the mother of Charlotte, a Yupik-Irish-American child, adopted in Anchorage.

Adoption seemed like a long road with many potential pitfalls, but we pursued it.

In discussions leading up to Olive's arrival, the social workers explained that most available children would be non-Caucasian. They asked us what we thought about parenting a child of a different race. We saw no particular issues.

In reality, we had no idea.

Five years in, we're still scratching our heads. How do we keep Olive connected to her culture? We're non-Native without a large circle of Native friends. How do we pull this off?

It's unresolved. But contact with Olive's birth family has allowed us to start feeling like things are coming together.

Growing up in a diaspora

Ever since Olive joined our family, I have thought a lot about the fact that she is Alaska Native. John's background is Finnish and English. I'm first-generation Irish-American. How do we raise a Tsimshian child?

We've reached out to a Tsimshian dance group in Anchorage, and its members have welcomed us. But Olive is shy and has not wanted to participate yet. We have taken her to the Alaska Native Heritage Center for events and to the Alaska Federation of Natives conference when it's in Anchorage. A Raven clan crest graces a wall in her bedroom. Occasionally we watch YouTube videos of Tsimshian dancing, and we speak with pride about Olive's tribe and clan.

Sometimes our efforts seem to be paying off.

"I'm a Raven girl," Olive will say, out of the blue.

Or when a raven flies overhead, she'll point and say, "I'm a Raven too."

I smile back.

"That's right, Olive. You are my little Raven, and I'm so proud of you."

But often I feel guilty for not doing more.

As someone who spent her childhood an ocean away from relatives, I understand how growing up in a diaspora feels. The isolation and disconnection can be tough. My parents and older brother immigrated to the United States from Ireland in the late 1950s. I'm the only person in my family born on American soil. Aside from an aunt, a nun in California who we rarely saw, all my relatives live in Ireland. We saw them for two weeks every other summer.

But those trips to Galway and Dublin are etched in my DNA. I didn't appreciate it then, but the time spent with my Irish relatives and family friends offered a sense of place and belonging. Recognizing their blue-green eyes and their facial features in mine, I learned I was part of something bigger than my nuclear family in Cliffside Park, N.J.

I want Olive, and her younger sister, Drew, an Inupiat Eskimo from Point Hope, to have that too.

Tsimshian name

Stephanie, Olive's birth mother, and I found each other through Facebook. That tentative contact developed into phone calls, texts and, later, video chats. During a trip to Sitka a couple of years ago, I met Stephanie in a coffee shop, and she said she was ready to meet Olive.

"I would love that," I said.

"You guys should come to Met," Stephanie said, using the town's nickname.

We talked about maybe holding a naming ceremony.

I wanted Olive to have a name that would connect her to her tribe. Her English name -- Olive Connolly Reed -- is a combination of John's surname and my mother's maiden name. Her first name honors my father, Oliver, and my mother's best friend, Olive. But John and I wanted her Tsimshian heritage recognized too. At the time of her adoption, we didn't know her birth family, so it didn't seem right to pick a Tsimshian name randomly on our own.

But after contact, I asked Olive's Aunt Kandi if she could research the Tsimshian word for "treasured gift." That's what Olive has always felt like to me. Kandi said she would.

We decided to travel to the island in early August. Metlakatla celebrates its founding every Aug. 7 with a parade, dancing and food booths. Last year marked the community's 127th anniversary, and Metlakatla's four clans were planning potlatches.

The timing seemed perfect.

John's parents, John Sr. and Judy Reed, residents of northern Michigan, decided to accompany us. We rendezvoused in Anchorage.

Finally, a meeting

After a morning flight from Anchorage to Ketchikan, we boarded a ferry to Metlakatla, our clothes damp from rain. After a 45-minute ride through the Inside Passage, the ferry docked on Annette Island, a forested dot in the sea.

We walked down the gangplank, searching for a familiar face.

Olive's grandmother Vicky had promised to pick us up. We had not seen her since the night of Olive's birth.

I scanned the crowd and saw a middle-aged woman with a long, black ponytail. Wearing wraparound sunglasses, jeans and a blue Metlakatla Indian Community Casino T-shirt, Vicky waved when she spotted us.

"Olive, this is your Grandma Vicky," I said, releasing Vicky from a hug.

As grandmother and granddaughter looked each other over, smiles lit up their faces. Normally shy with new people, Olive scrambled up into Vicky's giant pickup and nestled next to her. I sat in the passenger seat. Everyone else squeezed into the back.

Mother and daughter

The 15-mile road from the ferry terminal into town cut through steep forested mountains on one side, a steely gray sea on the other.

Within minutes, we arrived in the heart of town. Vicky pulled the truck to a stop in front of a small ranch house with tan siding.

"We're here," she said.

A young woman with long brown hair streamed out of the house, two little boys behind her. She had the same round cheeks, pug nose, high forehead and brown eyes as Olive.

"Hi, Olive," the young woman said, beaming at my daughter.

"Olive, this is your birth mom, Stephanie," I said.

Stephanie swept Olive into her arms.

Cousins, aunts and other relatives gathered close by and watched. Everyone was smiling.

I wish I'd caught the moment on video.

Getting acquainted

The house, owned by Olive's great-grandparents, Freeman and Marlene, smelled like stew and rice. Family photos covered the wall.

After hugs and handshakes, the adults sank into armchairs and an afghan-covered couch. We chatted about the weather and the trip from Anchorage, the polite and somewhat-stilted conversation people just getting to know one another might have. But it was happening, and it felt miraculous to me.

A gaggle of kids, including Olive and Drew, their new baby brothers, Tayler and Bailey (Stephanie's other kids); and cousins Dorothy, Isabella and Ethan, played in the front yard. They searched for ladybugs in the bushes, played Ring around the Rosie, and stomped in rain puddles.

Giggles and squeals eased the awkwardness inside.

After a dinner of chicken chop suey and beef stew over white rice, Olive's Aunt Kandi asked for everyone's attention.

"Listen up! Go to the living room. Olive should sit next to Papa," said Kandi.

John and I glanced at each other. We didn't know what was coming next.

A Tsimshian name

According to Tsimshian tradition, when a child receives a Tsimshian name, the male head of household places his hand on the shoulder of the child and repeats the name three times.

Papa, or Freeman, would do the honors this evening.

"We're going to hold a simple ceremony so that Olive can receive her Tsimshian name," Kandi said.

Silence settled over the room.

Kandi handed her grandfather a piece of paper with words on it I didn't recognize. She said the family is starting to learn more of the tribe's traditional language and integrate more Tsimshian customs and practices into their lives. Olive would be the first member of the family to formally receive a Tsimshian name.

I was stunned. Vicky, Stephanie and I had traded messages about a naming ceremony through Facebook. But we never got around to organizing anything, as far as I knew.

Now it was happening.

"Let's begin," Kandi said, her voice shaking.

Olive perched in my lap. Freeman sat next to us. His hand resting on Olive's shoulder, Freeman spoke in Sm'algyax, the Tsimshian langage, and read from the paper Kandi had given him. He would occasionally stumble over a word and Kandi would help him pronounce it.

Concluding his remarks, Freeman said Olive's name three times.

Haammom'ax. Haammom'ax. Haammom'ax. A gift that makes you smile.

He smiled at Olive.

It was done. The way I saw it, my daughter had just been formally accepted her into her tribe. She was part of something larger than us now. She was a Raven girl. Her journey was just beginning.

Woven together

After the ceremony ended, I stammered a few words of thanks. John's mom Judy, usually a model of composure, spoke next.

"As Olive's grandmother, this means so much to me," she said, her voice breaking.

Stephanie, Vicky and the other adults wiped away tears. We were all connected now -- two families woven together.

Over the next few days we attended potlatches hosted by the Ravens, Wolves, Killer Whales and Eagles. We dined on heaping plates of crab, halibut, salmon and deer and watched hours of dancing and drumming. Olive and Drew played with their new relatives.

After four days, it was time to go. We had a 7 a.m. floatplane to catch. At Vicky's house, where we were staying, Stephanie slept on the couch, Tayler and Bailey curled next to her. She stirred as we moved our luggage toward the door.

"I love you, Stephanie," I said, leaning down to give her a hug. "I hope to see you soon."

"Bye," she said. "Bye Olive. Come back soon baby. I love you."

Olive smiled.

I hope to return to Metlakatla. When Olive is older, I will encourage her to travel there on her own.

I stopped going to Ireland with my parents when I was 12, no longer interested in traveling with them. But I spent the summer before college there by myself. I slept in my mother's old bedroom in my uncle's farmhouse in Kilcolgan, County Galway. I visited relatives, went to country dances in rural hamlets surrounded by stone walls, and became a regular at punk rock clubs in Dublin. As an adult, I return to rain-soaked Ireland as often as possible. It's a way to stay connected with my Irish tribe.

I hope Haammom'ax will do the same.

Paula Dobbyn is a freelance writer based in Anchorage. A former Anchorage Daily News and public radio reporter, she has lived in Alaska for 20 years.