This year, for the first time in a long time, Mother’s Day didn’t bring with it the painful unknowns for Jeanne Winslow and Rachel Banks Kupcho of the Leech Lake Band of Ojibwe. Jeanne and her daughter Kupcho met for the second time last October, more than 35 years after Winslow gave her newborn up for adoption. “The day I got the call was the day I knew my life had changed forever,” says Winslow. That call on a cool October day carried the news that her daughter had found her and wanted to meet.
Their reunion was not a made-for-TV event filled with balloons and flowers. Winslow recalls that seeing her daughter for the first time in such a long time was quietly powerful, a bit like the first time she heard the drum and knew deep in her body that she was American Indian. Like Kupcho, Winslow was put up for adoption as a newborn and raised by non-Indians. Their story puts a quintessential Indian twist on the standard Mother’s Day tale of maternal perfection, and shows the inexorable pull of blood and spirit that so many Native people describe when they speak of wanting to know their culture.
I first met Kupcho in Minneapolis back in 2008 while doing a story about the challenges faced by American Indian adoptees who want learn more about their cultures and their birth parents. At the time, she knew only that her birth mother was Ojibwe from Minnesota. Her adoptive family was supportive and understanding of her efforts. A bright, confident young woman, Kupcho is convinced that without the unconditional love of her adoptive parents she would not have been strong enough to pursue her passion and calling of working to support the Indian Child Welfare Act (ICWA). While working with the National Indian Child Welfare Association, she met Sandy White Hawk, executive director of the First Nations Repatriation Institute in Minneapolis. White Hawk, an adoptee herself, founded the organization to advocate for Native adoptees in accordance with ICWA and to help unite adoptees with their birth families, cultures and tribes. In October, they informed me that they had found Kupcho’s birth mother, Winslow, a children’s counselor living in Iowa.
Winslow and Kupcho, along with Kupcho’s 18-month-old daughter Mika, quickly arranged a meeting. Kupcho recalls that Winslow seemed to be in quite a hurry to meet her. She soon found out why. Winslow’s birth mother (and Kupcho’s grandmother), Audrey Banks, who Winslow had met 20 years earlier, was dying. Winslow immediately rushed everyone to her mother’s bedside. “There were four generations in that room meeting for the first time,” Winslow recalls. “That was the first thing Kupcho and I did together. It was the greatest privilege and honor to be there with her. It was a very healing experience. This has all been about circles connecting. At first, it was just my circle but now I see that so many others are interconnected.”
Kupcho didn’t know it at the time, but she had previously connected with her grandmother—Audrey was well known and respected in the Minneapolis Native community for her work helping social service agencies maintain compliance with ICWA. Like Kupcho, she earned a master’s degree in social work in order to better serve Native children. “There has definitely been something bigger at work in my life; there has been a path I am meant to walk,” Kupcho says of this coincidence.
In many ways, Audrey’s experience as a young Ojibwe woman may have helped set the direction of that path. Born on the Leech Lake reservation, she was sent to the Pipestone Indian boarding school at age 9 and remained there for the remainder of her childhood. After moving to Minneapolis she gave birth to three boys and three girls. According to her daughters, social workers from Catholic Charities showed up at her bedside after each birth, pressuring the single mother to give the girls up for adoption. “She said that she felt coerced by the social workers that said that the girls would have better lives if they were raised by white people,” recalls Bernadine Harroun, Audrey’s second daughter. “I think that influenced her decision to go into social work and help keep Indian kids with Indian families.”
Bernadine and her younger sister, Winslow were adopted by the same family and raised together. Bernadine initiated the search for Audrey and Winslow and was responsible for their first meeting in 1989. They learned that Audrey, all of her children and Kupcho all lived and grew up within 20 miles of each other.
“Most of the stories of Native adoptees finding their families are like miracles,” White Hawk says. The distinguishing factor for Native adoptees, according to White Hawk is that the children were prayed for by generations of parents who knew hard times were coming. “Native people have that spiritual pull, like a spiritual umbilical cord that compels us to seek out our families,” she says.
Many Native adoptees report that hearing the traditional drum often activates that spiritual pull. Indeed Winslow recalls the first time she heard the drum. “I heard it and I knew I was Indian. The drum goes to some place so deep,” she recalls. (She didn’t know it at the time, but her uncle, well-known activist Dennis Banks was one of the people at that drum. He was giving a presentation at Winslow’s suburban high school about the happenings at Wounded Knee.)
Except for the strange longing awakened in her by the drum, Winslow says life in her adoptive suburban home was good. Ironically, because of this positive experience, she was able to make the difficult decision to relinquish her own daughter for adoption. Newly independent and sexually inexperienced, she found herself pregnant at age 19. “I knew that I couldn’t give my daughter the chance she deserved unless I did something drastic,” she recalls.
With the support of her adoptive family, Winslow put Kupcho up for adoption. “Leaving the hospital without her was the hardest thing I’ve ever done in my life,” she says. Over time, however, she was at peace with her decision although birthdays, Christmas and Mother’s Day were hard. “I never stopped wondering about her,” says Winslow.
There was always a lingering, fear, too that Kupcho would be angry with her if and when they reconnected. She says, however, that her meetings with Kupcho and Mika have been smooth and joyous. She compares it to dancing in the circle for the first time with Audrey. “Somehow my feet knew what to do,” Winslow recalls.
“I can’t imagine the pain Winslow went through in making the brave choice to give me up for adoption. I give her tons of credit,” says Kupcho, adding that Winslow needn’t have feared she would be angry. “If anything her love gave me the wonderful life I have now. The home I was adopted into has afforded me the ability to do the work that I do.”
Kupcho is starting a new job with a non-profit organization that licenses foster homes for Native children. Her main focus is creating permanent, supportive homes. Although her adoptive placement was loving and good, advocating for a child to be in a loving home is not specific enough. “Being with family is ideal,” she says. “Love is not always enough. Going to the occasional pow wow is not enough. We need to know about our traditions and culture. Even knowing you’re Indian is not enough. With the experience of meeting my birth family, I understand this more fully.
“As a mother and as an adoptee I have a better sense of myself. I have a stronger, more confident gait. This is the only thing my adoptive parents haven’t been able to give me.”
Finding her birth mother, however, was not the whole key to Kupcho’s search. “I needed to know where I came from and make that tribal connection. When visiting the reservation I am suddenly among family and I feel good,” she says.
Both Kupcho and Winslow report that they are going forward with their new relationship without expectations and going with that process as it unfolds. Their first Mother’s Day was one of quiet joy. “I’m a mother, now I have somebody,” explains Winslow. “Plus it’s great to be a grandma.”
“Mother’s Day is definitely more complicated now, but only in my mind. I’m taking it as it comes,” says Kupcho, laughing.
Sandy White Hawk’s message for Mother’s Day and every day thereafter: “We need to encourage our birth mothers to forgive themselves and remember we wouldn’t be here without them. We need to tell them that regardless of the kinds of lives we have had, we can have good lives from this day forward and for that we are grateful.”
NOTE: This is an update to a 2010 story that was published on DailyYonder.com.