Reclaiming Her Identity: A Conversation With Native Adoptee and Author Susan Fedorko
Susan Fedorko was 40 years old when she found her birth family—or rather, when a long-lost sister found her. Her first book, Cricket: Secret Child of a Sixties Supermodel (Outskirts Press, 2012) chronicles Fedorko’s journey from Native American adoptee-turned “white” mother and wife, to a person reunited with her extended family. That family hails from the Grand Portage Indian Reservation people on her mother’s side and the White Earth Nation on her father’s, both Chippewa/Ojibwe. In an unexpected twist, Fedorko discovered that just a few years after her birth, her birth mother—Cathee Dahmen—had become an immensely popular supermodel, probably the first Native American woman to attain that status.
Fedorko’s story is a bittersweet mix of hard-won healing and humor. She recalls gazing at her then 11-month-old daughter, Samantha: “I broke down, thinking how terrible it must have been for my birth mother to part with me. It would rip me apart to be separated from Samantha.” Just pages later, she captures the voice of one of her husband’s good-old-boy friends, “whose accent made him sound like his name could have been Cletus.” Her experiences have been diverse, her responses unfailingly human, and her writing utterly frank.
Thousands of Native children—up to 35 percent of Indian youth in some states—were taken from their homes and adopted into white families before the 1978 Indian Child Welfare Act. Fedorko is one of them. Her story will resonate both with those who have reconnected and those still dreaming about that day.
How did you react when you first realized who your birth mother was, and how do you look at it now?
As an adoptee, you fantasize about who your birth parents could be. What did they look like? What were they like? What types of jobs did they have? You imagine that you may get photos of them someday, normal photos. Perhaps they would be blowing out birthday candles, sitting on the couch with a sibling, standing near a Christmas tree. Some of the very first images I saw of my birth mom were on the cover of Vogue and Harper’s Bazaar. I was flooded with new images of Cathee for the first few months; she was photographed by some of the very best fashion photographers in the world. The very first images that I saw, I studied them intensely. I could see myself in those photos.… I could also see her in both my daughters.
Then as a few weeks passed, I began to run things through my mind. The “whys” would always surface. Without her or the principals involved in my adoption being around or alive, it was hard to capture an accurate account of why or why not. I have to hope that things happened the way they did for a reason, and accept that. It has now been more than 10 years since I have been found. I have been able to digest a lot since November 2002. I am very proud of who my birth mother is.
In your book, you describe near misses. Can you summarize some of those?
I have been so close to running into the Dahmen family many times. In September of 2001 my husband Tim and I went with friends on a motorcycle ride. We made it to Grand Marais, Minnesota and spent the weekend there. Little did I know that Cathee’s grave lay a few miles beyond the B&B where we were staying. I decided to stay back at the B&B instead of riding an additional 30 miles to Grand Portage Casino. A great number of my relatives live on the reservation in Grand Portage. Knowing now that several Dahmen cousins work at the casino, I could have run into cousins, aunts and uncles on that trip. Both my grandmothers—my adoptive Grandma Rose and biological Grandma Mary attended the same church in South Minneapolis. My husband Tim’s childhood friend, Jon Kusler, worked at Alliant Techsystems, in New Brighton, Minnesota. Jon would stop by our house after work. I discovered that Jon’s shift supervisor was my aunt Darlene Dahmen-Oakgrove, Cathee’s sister.
In reconnecting with your birth family, have you gotten any answers?
I don’t think that I will ever have all the answers about my adoption. Cathee passed away before I could get the chance to ask her any questions. I will never know completely the reason why I was the only one in the family who was adopted out. I was told that my biological grandmother packed me up one day while Cathee was at school and adopted me out without her knowing about it. She came home to find me gone. I had heard it was decided that Cathee move out to the East Coast to live with her Uncle George [Morrison]. She would finish out her senior year there, and get away from the hurt and pain of my loss. I will never know.… 1962 was the year that hurt the most in her life. I will never know if she thought of me often or thought of me at all. I will never know if having children after me made her feel better or not. Or in her last few hours, what kind of thoughts ran through her mind about me. I always wanted to know if she ever looked for me. I have had to accept not knowing and move on. I have had to stop asking myself “why,” or it would eat me alive.
How have you reconnected with the Native spiritual and cultural parts of yourself?
As an adult I do not understand the customs and ceremonies; however, I am learning. In my book, I recall the first time I visited Cathee’s grave. I was with my Auntie Barb, and I spent a couple moments in silence talking to Cathee. I had not noticed that Barb had been fumbling in her purse for her cigarettes. I noticed that she had taken out a smoke—I began thinking to myself, “She is not going to light up right here, is she?” Barb then snapped her cigarette in half and put the tobacco into her hand, and she asked me for my hand and sprinkled the remaining tobacco into it. I thought to myself: Cathee died of emphysema, which was tobacco related! Does Barb think she is missing it so much she feels compelled to put some on her grave? I had no idea what offering tobacco meant, because no one ever explained it to me. I do understand it now.
Your book describes your early efforts to be recognized by either your father’s or your mother’s tribe. Have those efforts been fruitful?
I tried getting enrolled from the age of 18; I made over 25 documented pleas to the adoption agency to help me find my tribe and family roots. I had given up many times and gained strength and tried all over again. Finally, in 2002, my half-sister Sarah decided to find her long-lost sister Cricket. When it came time to try to get enrolled with either my birth father’s tribe [White Earth Nation] or my birth mother’s tribe [Grand Portage] I had discovered that somehow I had been enrolled in 1992 with Grand Portage. I was so happy that I had been recognized and had been enrolled 11 years already. I was also told that I had per-capita payments accumulated under that enrollment number.
But then, the Grand Portage Tribal Council ruled that my enrollment had been an error, so they gave me a new enrollment number from that point on. I do not understand to this day why they thought my blood quantum had changed from 1992 to 2002. It was very disappointing, but I am grateful and happy that I am enrolled.
Why do you consider yourself one of the lucky adoptees?
My adoptive parents were in their mid-40s when they adopted me. They are now in their mid-90s. Both are wonderful parents. I could not have asked for a better match. They made sure that I was loved, healthy, educated and that I had my faith. I grew up with one older sister and one older brother. I have nothing but good memories of my adoptive family. In my heart they will always be my parents and siblings. I do count myself lucky because my placement worked out. I was not neglected or abused. I have heard many stories from other adoptees that were not so fortunate. My heart breaks for them; they endured horrible conditions.
As an adoptee, you struggled with low self-esteem. What advice would you give to other adoptees?
I would emphasize that your adoption was not your fault. Be strong and be the best that you can be. That is hard to swallow at times. I will be the first to admit that I have often felt like I did not belong, or that I was not wanted. I spent a great deal of my life being shy and unsure of my place. I have my faith and always tell myself, “I am worthy.” I do think that I have gained more self-assurance now that I know my roots. I don’t think Cathee tolerated any crap from anyone. I suddenly have her strength. I keep her photos close so I am reminded that I can still dream big, just as she did. Her beauty was captured during a difficult time in her life. I am a part of a large network of Native American adoptees founded by Sandy White Hawk. Sandy’s group, [WeAreComingHome.com], is such a spiritual gift to be a part of. I have been with the group since 2003. It started with just a handful of Native adoptees and has since grown to more than 200.