Tuesday, April 12, 2016


In the last couple of months, I've been reading a lot about the Indian Child Welfare Act (ICWA). Prior to this study, I knew about it because ICWA is something most Native people know about. 

Right now, though, I'm doing a scholarly study of it because ICWA is in Emily Henry's The Love that Split the World. Her depiction of ICWA is troubling. 

Of late, I've asked friends and colleagues to send me titles of works in which a character is adopted or fostered out of their Native community. I'm compiling a list and have read several of the items. The majority are by Native writers, some of whom are writing of their own experience as children. The majority of items on my list are meant for adult readers.

Amongst the suggestions are a few books that aren't by Native writers. Tim Green's Unstoppable is one. Green is a former NFL defensive end. I read his book over the weekend and, for several reasons, I am marking it as not recommended. For one, the main character is Native, but we aren't told anything about his tribal nation or heritage. As the synopsis below indicates, he is adopted (twice, actually) but ICWA is not mentioned in the reviews or in Green's novel. I'll say more about that later. My guess is that Green and his editor and the people who reviewed Unstoppable had no idea there is a federal law about adoption of Native children. 

Published by Harper as a middle grade novel, Unstoppable came out in 2012. Here's the synopsis:

If anyone understands the phrase "tough luck," it's Harrison. As a foster kid in a cruel home, he knows his dream of one day playing in the NFL is a longshot. Then Harrison is brought into a new home with kind, loving parents—his new dad is even a football coach. Harrison's big build and his incredible determination quickly make him a star running back on the junior high school team. On the field, he's practically unstoppable. But Harrison's good luck can't last forever. When a routine sports injury leads to a devastating diagnosis, it will take every ounce of Harrison's determination not to give up for good. 
When Unstoppable opens, thirteen-year-old Harrison is living with Mr. and Mrs. Constable, as a foster child. Mr. Constable is a farmer who uses foster kids as laborers. He often whips them with his belt. 

I begin with summary...

This foster home is the 4th one Harrison has been in. In his previous placements, he got in a lot of fights and was characterized as "an untamed and untamable beast" (p. 7). The fights he got into, though, were ones where he was defending himself or other vulnerable kids from bullies. That didn't matter, however, and he ended up with Mr. Constable, a man who was known as able to "cure even the hardest of bargains" (p. 7). When the story opens, Harrison has made Mr. Constable angry but he doesn't beat him as badly this time, because the next day, they are going to see the judge (p. 8):
“Just got a call from the lawyer. Seems your momma’s got some funny notions again. Raised a ruckus at the county offices on Friday."
Constable's employee, Cyrus, tells Harrison (p. 9):
"Your momma’s a tramp and a druggie. She cast you off like garbage, and once a woman does that there ain’t a judge in creation hands her back her kids, so don’t you get so smart.”
Harrison realizes that he's stronger than Cyrus now, and that he would win if he fought Cyrus next time he tried to beat him. While bathing that evening, he takes care to scrub his nails, behind his ears, and between his toes because he didn't want to look like, or smell like a farm boy when he sees the judge, and (p. 10):
He might even see his own mother. Cyrus’s cruel words about her came back to him and his ears burned with shame and hate. Maybe that was why he had been ready to fight.
He goes to bed, feeling hopeful about the upcoming meeting with the judge. In the pages that follow, we are given a description of the town and the courthouse. This is farm country but we don't know what state. When they get to the courtroom, Harrison looks around for his mother. His case is called and we learn his last name is Johnson and that his mom's name is Melinda Johnson. She's not there, though. Mr. Constable mutters (p. 15):
“All this fuss and she’s too drunk to show up.”
Realizing she's not there, Harrison's heart sinks. The judge asks Mr. Constable's lawyer for the adoption papers, reads them, and then says (p. 16):
“Then,” the judge said, examining the papers, “given the trouble Ms. Johnson has caused in all this and her apparent lack of responsibility— as well as respect for this court, I might add— all leads me to believe that the best course of action for this young . . . boy is to make him the legal and permanent son of Mr. and Mrs. Brad Constable.”
Looking at Mr. Constable and his lawyer, Harrison has a sense of foreboding. The papers are signed, and then, there's a ruckus as someone forces open the courtroom doors. It is Harrison's mother. He feels his insides (p. 19-20):
melt like butter in a hot pan.
His mother’s dark frizzy hair shot out from her head in all directions. She wore a long raincoat and Harrison didn’t know what else besides a dirty pair of fluffy pink slippers. He could see the red in her eyes from across the room and the heavy bags of exhaustion they carried beneath them.
Liquid pain pumped through his heart.
“That’s my baby!” Harrison’s mother screeched as the bailiff and a guard held her arms. “You can’t do that to my baby!”
“Order in this court!” The judge pounded and glared, but it had no effect. “Order, I said, or you’ll be in contempt!”
Tears welled up in Harrison’s eyes. He felt like a split stick of firewood, half shamed, half aching to hold her. He started toward his mother, but Mr. Constable’s big hand clamped down on the back of his neck so that the nerves tingled in his head.
The judge orders the bailiff to take her into custody for contempt. Mr. Constable and Harrison leave the courtroom. Outside, Harrison asks where his mother is, but Mr. Constable tells him that Mrs. Constable is his new mother. They return to the farm. Harrison thinks about all the other kids there, who have also been adopted by Mr. Constable (p. 22):
While they didn’t seem to mind, Harrison had never—and would never—stop thinking of Melinda Johnson as his one and only true mother. 
Later that day, Mr. Constable and Harrison get in an argument and then a fight. The outcome of the fight: Mr. Constable falls into a stall where a cow giving birth kicks, and kills him. Harrison runs away and is found by a kind woman named Mrs. Godfrey. She knows all about the brutal Constables. She takes him to a doctor, and then to a juvenile center. A few weeks pass. One day, Mrs. Godfrey tells him that his mother is gone. He thinks she's moved away, but Mrs. Godfrey tells him she passed (p. 28-29):
Harrison didn’t cry. He just blinked at her and watched a tear roll down her nose and drop off the end of it, spattering onto the table where they sat.
“Was she sick?” he whispered, his eyes on the spattered drop.
“I think she was very sick, and very tired, and I think she’s in a place now where she’s at peace and watching you and loving you just like she always did.”
Harrison stared at the broken tear for a long time before he spoke. “Mr. Constable said she didn’t.”
“Harrison, most people in this world are good, but some are bad. Mr. Constable was a very bad man, and he was a liar. That’s all I can say about it.”
Then she tells him she has some good news. She has found him a new foster home, with her daughter Jennifer (who is a lawyer) and Coach (Jennifer's husband, who is an English teacher and a football coach). Harrison will call him Coach, like everyone else does (later, both ask him to call them dad and mom). 

When Jennifer shows Harrison his bedroom, he sees a bookcase full of books. She pulls one out, by Louis L'Amour, and hands it to him (p. 33-34):
“I think you’ll like this.” She handed him the book. “My brothers loved The Sacketts. It’s a family that comes to America when it was a new land.”
Coach is excited about Harrison's size and interest in playing football. His first day at his new school is difficult. Football practice is mixed, too, but Harrison is excited, nonetheless. The second day starts off badly, too. When a teacher threatens him with a ruler, he takes it from her and breaks it in half. She calls security and he ends up in the principals office. When the principal suggests that they should find a different school for Harrison, his foster mom says the teacher's threat may be a hate crime (p. 121):
“Hate crime?” Mr. Fisk’s rosy cheeks turned pale green. “This boy isn’t a minority.”
Jennifer raised a single eyebrow. “Obviously you haven’t looked closely at his records. His maternal grandmother was a full-blooded Native American.
I finished the book but am not going further with summary. Harrison's identity as a Native person is not the emphasis of Green's book. Harrison is going to be diagnosed with cancer. That, essentially, is what Unstoppable is about. The diagnosis occurs on page 199 of the novel, which is 342 pages long.

And now, some interpretation...

Other than reading that he is big (strong), we don't get a physical description of Harrison. Because Mr. Fisk says "this boy isn't a minority" we can assume that he looks white. 

But he's not white, as Jennifer said. When his mom comes into the courtroom, he describes her "dark frizzy hair." When Jennifer says his maternal grandmother is "full blooded Native American," he isn't surprised. That tells me he knows he is Native...

But what nation? Does Jennifer not know? She knows enough about racial justice to characterize the situation as a hate crime, but she--and her mother (Mrs. Godfrey, the social worker)--apparently don't know about ICWA, which, in real life, has bearing on placements of Native children. 

In real life, someone like Mrs. Godfrey is required, by ICWA, to notify his nation. I'm assuming that the author (Tim Green) knew nothing about ICWA. I'm assuming most of you also know nothing about it. It doesn't matter one bit that his grandmother was "full blooded." His identity, described in fractions, is irrelevant. Each nation determines its citizenship. And when someone is a citizen of a nation, they're a citizen, period. If a woman is a US citizen, has a relationship with a citizen of France that results in pregnancy, and the baby is born in the US, that child is a citizen of the US. The woman might be White, or she might be African American, or Asian American... you get the picture. Skin color, or race, or ethnicity, or religion... none of that matters. She is a citizen of the United States, and her baby, born in the US is also a citizen of the US.

The Indian Child Welfare Act was passed in 1978. The Native American Rights Fund has a very useful document on its website, intended for educational and informational purposes. There, they write that ICWA:
established minimum federal jurisdictional, procedural, and substantive standards aimed to achieve the dual purpose of protecting the right of an Indian child to live with an Indian family and to stabilize and foster continued tribal existence.  
In Federal Indian Law, Matthew Fletcher (he's a Professor of Law at Michigan State University, and director of its Indigenous Law and Policy Center) provides a history of ICWA. In 1978, Congress enacted the Indian Child Welfare Act. 

In the years prior to that, testimony from Native people was gathered. The conclusion based on that testimony: between 25 and 35 percent of all Native children, nationwide, had been removed from their families, and 90 percent of them had been placed in non-Native homes. It was characterized as a systematic, automatic, and across-the-board removal of Indian children from Indian families. 

In the hearings, Fletcher writes (Kindle location 18416-18418):
[W]itness after witness would testify to the automatic removal of Indian children, often without due process. Byler [Executive Director of the Association on American Indian Affairs] testified that at the Rosebud Sioux Reservation, state social workers believed that the reservation was, by definition, an unacceptable environment for children and would remove Indian children without providing services or even the barest investigation whatsoever.
Others testified that rather than step in and offer assistance to families that were struggling, state agencies would wait for the families to reach a crisis point and then step in, only to take the children from their homes. 

That's exactly what I see happening in Unstoppable. Clearly, Harrison's mom was struggling. Was she receiving assistance she should have received? Given the characterization of Cyrus and Mr. Constable, we know they're racist and what they say about his mother is racist, but nowhere is any of that racist depiction of her challenged. With nobody countering it, are stereotypical ideas of Native people as dysfunctional affirmed? I think so, and, that is unacceptable.

If this was a real-life case, would her case be an example of a state agency stepping in and taking her child without due process? Certainly, Harrison did not receive due process in the courtroom when the evil Mr. Constable adopted him, but he didn't receive it when the kindly Coach and Jennifer adopted him, either. Again--I assume that Tim Green didn't know about ICWA when he wrote the book, and neither did his editor.

Is ignorance an excuse?

Some will say yes. Others will say it doesn't matter, because, after all, "its fiction." 

I disagree. Ignorance is not an excuse, because ignorance about Native people is the norm. That norm is not acceptable. Writers, editors, reviewers... most are ignorant about who we are. Fiction has tremendous power to shape what we think and know. It need not feed ignorance. Indeed, when the audience is children or teens, it ought to be called out when it feeds ignorance. 

Green's Unstoppable feeds ignorance. As such, I do not recommend it.  

Indeed, Unstoppable does precisely what ICWA was meant to stop from happening. Harrison was adopted by a kind white family. But what book was he given to read, right away, in that white home? Louis L'Amour's Sackett's Land: A Novel. I excerpted that passage above. Remember what Jennifer said about the Sackett family as she handed it to him? "It’s a family that comes to America when it was a new land." Quite honestly, I find that passage grotesque. Books like that dismiss and undermine who we are as Native peoples. This wasn't "new land" to us. It was, and is, our homeland. Jennifer is, in my view, doing a version of "kill the Indian and save the man" and so is Tim Green.

Unstoppable and what happens in it are why ICWA matters.  Why, I wonder, did Green make his main character Native? I'll be thinking about this book for awhile as I continue to develop my review of Emily Henry's book. Are there others out there, for children or young adults, that I should add to my list?  


Eleanora said...

Thanks for your insights about this book, Debbie. Would some who support this book say that it falls under "casual diversity" since it seems to be more about cancer than his ethnicity?

Debbie Reese said...


Yes, I anticipate people rejecting my concerns because the story is about cancer.

People reject my concerns about TOUCHING SPIRIT BEAR because it is about bullying.

People reject my concerns about THE MISEDUCATION OF CAMERON POST because the book pushes back on homophobia.

People reject my concerns about LITTLE HOUSE ON THE PRAIRIE because "that's how they thought back then."

People reject my concerns about WALK ON EARTH A STRANGER because it is fiction.

People reject my concerns about THE TRUE MEANING OF SMEKDAY because the main character is biracial.

I could go on, but I think you see where I'm going. All these much-loved or acclaimed books published by major publishers are defended because those issues matter more, to that individual, than the problems with the Native content. I hope, though, that people realize we're talking about a lot of books. Indeed, the majority of books. That status quo will not change unless people are willing to say 'yeah--this is a problem.'

Unknown said...

Just to be clear and not to start something, in your opinion books such as lLittle House on the Prairie and Tom Sawyer should not be written let alone printed?

K T Horning said...

What I wonder is why Tim Green chose to make his main character Native. Was it so he would have one more characteristic to "overcome?" I don't find it credible that the Constables would pass muster in any adoption process. The whole book seems as though it was not well thought out.

Debbie Reese said...

Jacinda, I don't think I've ever said that either book should never have been written. There are times, though, when a Native child tells me that they read LITTLE HOUSE in school and their teacher tried to persuade them it is a good book, that I wish it was not being used in schools with young children.

K T, I'd hope a family like the Constables wouldn't be given any children at all, but I've read a lot and know that horrible placements do happen. Psychology Today has an article here: https://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/somatic-psychology/201201/the-foster-care-system-and-its-victims-part-2 As for why Tim Green made the character Native, I don't know, but choosing to make him Native and then affirming stereotypical ideas.... bad move on his part.

Unknown said...

Thanks for the clarification Debbie!

J Lynn said...

I’m sorry – this isn’t a book about cancer – it’s a book about families. If it was a book about cancer, the diagnosis would have happened much earlier along. So, the identity of our protagonist does need to be thought about and considered, like it would be in any other adoption-family book.

I can see how to fix it!

I come from an area where the closest nation requires ½ blood quantum and a few other nations that are further out admit a smaller ratio but will only accept their own tribe when calculating if you belong - so I can see how Tim Green could have bypassed the NICWA discussion. Of course, that would require our author and editorial staff to know something about the laws of our land.

That's what drives me absolutely mad about books like this. If his mother trying to get her tribe involved and the judge shoved through the adoption out of bigotry, I would have said... interesting. It might help to explain how adoptions are taking place in such a short period of time. Or after the scene where Jennifer takes on the Principal, have Harrison ask, “Is it really true, that thing you said about my grandmother?” and she admits that yes, but informs him that he doesn’t qualify for tribal citizenship, I would have said... ok, I'll buy that.

If they just left the whole thing out...
nothing in the book would have changed, except it wouldn't have betrayed the ignorance of the author and editorial staff to the larger public.

Anonymous said...

I wonder if the author knows much about the adoption / foster process in any capacity.

The judge apparently approved the adoption papers without officially terminating the parents' rights, as he was waiting on the mother to make a determination in the first place. He could have stripped her of her parental rights in the court like that, but there wouldn't have been an immediate adoption.

And how would a child be adopted, then immediately (within a day)be taken back into a different foster situation? Legally, he'd be the son of the woman who adopted him. He wouldn't be going into foster care, unless she said she didn't want him back at home, and if that was the case, they'd just not file the adoption papers and the first adoption would have been null and void.

And, if the Godfrey woman "knew" Constable was a very bad man and a liar, then why hadn't she informed the authorities on behalf of the multiple children this pair had "adopted." Surely as someone working with the foster system, and especially with a daughter who is an attorney, she knew about mandatory reporters, of which she would be one.

It sounds like there are a lot of problems with this one, including the ICWA. None of it makes sense.