In her 1993 novel, Pigs in Heaven, Barbara Kingsolver chronicles the story of an American Indian child, Turtle, and her young, white, adoptive mother, Taylor Greer. In what has been criticized as a controversial imagined fact pattern, Kingsolver writes that while stopped in a parking lot in the middle of the night, Taylor is approached by an American Indian woman holding a baby. Rather mysteriously, the woman informs Taylor that the baby’s mother died and the baby was being abused, upon which Taylor notes that “it looked like someone had been hurting [the woman] too.” After placing the baby in Taylor’s arms, the woman gets into an unlit car and drives off into the darkness. To her surprise, Taylor begins to bond with the child and eventually seeks to adopt her. However, when a Cherokee attorney, Annawakee, learns of the adoption, its legality is threatened by the ominous Indian Child Welfare Act (“ICWA”), which dictates (for the novel’s purposes) that “you can’t adopt an Indian kid without tribal permission.”
The novel manages to capture—though not without an artistic license—the conflicting interests often involved in the adoption of an American Indian child by non-American Indians. The line between reality and representation is a thin one at best here, for the novel’s real-life counterpart is often just as dramatic and polarizing. Nevertheless, most American Indian children are not bestowed upon young women in the middle of the night, and Barbara Kingsolver—though certainly knowledgeable about American Indian issues—is a white woman from Maryland who has never adopted an American Indian child before.
Much of what Kingsolver correctly shares, however, pertains to the history and intent of the ICWA. Annawakee describes the Act as a response to the “wholesale removal” of American Indian children through federal policies of “dividing up families” and “selling off land.” Indeed, this “wholesale removal” most notoriously took place during the “Boarding School Era,” when, from 1860 to 1973, American Indian families were coerced by the federal government into sending their children off-reservation to live at boarding schools. These government-run establishments aimed to introduce American Indian children to the “habits and arts of civilization” while forcing them to abandon their traditional languages, cultures, and practices. Although the policy was framed as a peaceful solution to the “Indian problem,” the boarding school era gave birth to the more well-known motto: “Kill the Indian, Save the Man.”
Though the schools began closing their doors in the 1970s, the removal of American Indian children from their tribal lands persisted through their overrepresentation in the child welfare system. By 1973, 25-35% of all American Indian children nationwide were removed from their families, and 75-80% of American Indian families living on reservations lost at least one child to the foster care system.