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In the summer of 1998, just after I turned 20, I learned, by accident, that I was adopted. The experience redefined how I understood race, culture and ethnicity. It also came to teach me a great deal about the importance of valuing "who" we are when so many focus on "what" we are, or what others think we are.

Discovering Who in a Land of What | DaShanne Stokes

That summer I had returned to college after a visit home, reuniting with the man I had been raised to believe was my birth father, to find a letter from my father's parents. Through an off-hand remark, they unintentionally became the first to break the news to me that I was, in fact, adopted. It was something they thought I already knew.

In the subsequent weeks and months, I discovered that my name had been changed several times. I discovered that the man I knew as "Dad" wasn't my biological father, that my family wasn't my biological family. I also discovered that the Native American culture I grew up with probably wasn't my true ancestral culture.

In a curious twist of fate, I grew up being told I was, by blood, a mixture of Lakota, Italian and Irish, and my mother, wanting to protect me, never told me that I was adopted. After all the trials we had survived together--including my step-father's transformation into a drug abusing adulterer and stalker--my mother had wanted me to have a normal childhood with a loving family. So she told me that I was like her--a mixture of Lakota, Italian and Irish.

As a child, I grew up like many multicultural children. We celebrated both Kwanzaa and Christmas, and through them I saw the value of diversity and celebrating who you are. We were a household where different traditions could be celebrated together, where the Kwanzaa principle of "umoja," or unity, was real. With my mother and I being of different racial and cultural backgrounds than my African American step-father, what mattered was not "what" we were, but "who" we were. And who we were was family.

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All around me, I saw the value of celebrating culture, of embracing who you are. I grew up learning more and more about my Lakota culture. I prayed with a chanupa (or sacred pipe) and smudged myself with sage and sweetgrass.

All the while, others attacked me for what I was, and what they thought I was. They called me a "half-breed." They taunted me with war whoops and tomahawk chops. I eventually faced being kicked out of my dorm for smudging, a common Native American practice. I also faced losing my job when others, seeing me praying with sage and sweetgrass, accused me of using drugs. People could not see past what I was, and why I was different.

Through it all, I learned first-hand what I tried to tell those who attacked me--that what matters is not what you are, but who you are.

When I later discovered that I might not have Lakota ancestry, my beliefs and what I'd learned as a child was put to the test. Suddenly I didn't know who or what I was. I didn't know if I could still call my mom "Mom" or my dad "Dad." I didn't know if I'd ever be able to enroll in my tribe, or if I could still call myself Lakota.

But then, one day after considerable turmoil, I happened to look over at my dresser. On it, I saw that I still had the eagle feathers with which I prayed. It dawned on me that I still smudged myself with sage and sweetgrass when I prayed. I still went to ceremony. Everything in my world had been redefined. What I knew about my ancestry and what I was had been dramatically transformed--but who I was had never changed.

That's when I remembered everything I'd ever been taught as a child. I remembered the lessons I learned by celebrating Kwanzaa and Christmas, and I remembered the lessons I learned for being different. My experiences told me that, even if the biology involved might have changed, my family was still my family. I was still me because what matters most is not "what" you are, but "who" you are.

And that's been the most important lesson of all.


Originally published in Adoption Today, May, 2014, pp. 27.
Read it on Adoption Today: Discovering 'Who' in a Land of 'What' >>

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