'I gave life': How traditional adoption fosters identity and belonging
Crystal Charlie smacks on a piece of gum as she walks down a dusty road in Old Crow.
To the 12-year-old’s left is the Porcupine River, a winding body of water so clear you could scoop it up with your hands and drink it straight. To Crystal’s right sit the wooden houses and unpaved roads that make up her hometown and the northernmost community in the Yukon.
She is standing on the traditional territory of the Vuntut Gwitchin First Nation, a people she calls her own.
She pauses by the river to blow bubbles, then pops them, giggling. Her dark eyes twinkle through the thick-rimmed glasses on her face.
Ask Crystal about her family, and she’ll give you the following answer: “I have two moms and two dads.”
Crystal is one of many First Nations, Métis and Inuit children who have been adopted in the traditional Indigenous way, otherwise known as traditional or custom adoption.
She is the biological daughter of Anna Taureau, a Dene woman who is originally from Fort Good Hope, N.W.T.
At two days old, Crystal was adopted by Sandra Charlie, a Gwich’in woman who was born and raised in Old Crow. Both Sandra and Anna reside in the small northern community with their partners and their other children.
Traditional adoption might happen for a variety of reasons. In some cases, if a child dies, another family in their community will give them one of their children. In other cases, a family will adopt the child of another if they are having difficulty conceiving.
In Crystal’s case, her biological mother, Anna, says she simply didn’t have the resources to take care of a second child at that time in her life.
When Anna found out she was pregnant with Crystal, she was 21 years old and living in her parents’ house with her partner, Joseph. They were already taking care of her then two-year-old son, Rylie.
“We weren’t prepared to have another baby,” says Anna, now 33. “So, I told Joseph we had to give her up for adoption.”
Anna and her partner searched for suitable candidates to take Crystal. When a child is traditionally adopted, the agreement is generally a verbal one between the two families. Where traditional adoption is legally recognized, all those adopting need to do is sign a single form.
Eventually, Joseph suggested his cousin, Sandra Charlie. Sandra was single, and she already had a 15-year-old daughter, Cheyanne, at the time.
Anna and Joseph had another family in the Northwest Territories who was willing to take Crystal, but Sandra says she didn’t like knowing the baby would be so far away from family.
“Even though that other family was Gwich’in,” she says, “the thought was so scary that I had to do something about it.
“Depending on the circumstances, and who's involved, it’s so important to keep children at home.”
So, Sandra called Joseph back and let him and Anna know she would take the child.
There is no hard and fast process for custom adoption across Canada. For example, in the Northwest Territories, traditional adoptees do not need to go through the government to have the adoption validated. Instead, they send the details to their local adoption commissioner, an official nominated by individual Indigenous groups to deal specifically with custom adoptions.
In Canada, the practice is currently recognized by the governments of all three territories, as well as Quebec and British Columbia.
However, there is no formal, legally recognized process for traditional adoption in the Yukon. In order for Crystal's adoption to be legally recognized, she had to be born in a part of Canada did have an official process: in this case, the Northwest Territories.
Soon enough, the baby came. Crystal was born in Yellowknife, N.W.T.
Traditional adoption is legally recognized there, so all Sandra had to do to take custody of Crystal was sign a form acknowledging that a custom adoption agreement had taken place between she and Crystal’s biological parents. The form was then approved by the adoption commissioner in court, and Sandra became Crystal’s legal guardian.
Crystal remained with Anna for the first two days of her life. Anna remembers holding her newborn daughter, knowing that, within days, a woman she barely knew would be taking her child.
“I think that was the hardest thing I had to do,” says Anna. “I seriously cried for about a year straight. Every day, I would just cry and cry and cry.
“Even as hard as it is for me, I feel happy because I gave life and joy to another family and person.”
Traditional adoption has been a part of many Indigenous cultures for thousands of years.
There are few concrete statistics surrounding the practice, given its often informal nature. Yet it continues to be an integral part of many Indigenous communities.
“Caring for other people was just the whole community’s business,” says Louise Creyke, a social worker who was born and raised in Old Crow.
Louise, who has traditionally adopted a child, says it “isn’t a big deal.”
Louise’s cousin, Pauline Frost, is the Yukon’s minister of health and social services, environment and housing. Her ministry oversees adoptions in the territory. She’s the member of the legislative assembly for the electoral district of Vuntut Gwitchin, where she grew up.
Pauline was traditionally adopted herself. She was raised by her grandmother, something she says is an “honour.”
She spent eight months a year in Whitehorse attending school. During the summer, her grandmother would bring her out to their family’s trapline on the land, where she would mentor Pauline on the ways of the Vuntut Gwitchin.
“During that time, we would talk about the values and principles of the people, the knowledge, the history of the people,” Pauline says.
“In every family, that seemed to be the process. You were taught about who you were … as Vuntut Gwitchin.”
Pauline says it was this time with her grandmother and in her community that set her on the path to the role she fills today.
That transfer of knowledge isn’t exclusive to just family members. In many cases, all members of an Indigenous community will come together to pass on-the-land practices and teachings to the younger generation.
“The children will just find an adult to go with, or find someone they are comfortable with,” Pauline says. “This is what we refer to when we say traditional adoption, or traditional practices.”
In this way, culture is carried on when a community acts as a healthy and functioning family unit.
“First Nations view the care of children as a communal responsibility and thus it is not unusual for First Nations children to be cared for by extended family or members of their clan or kinship group,” reads a 2010 report from the First Nations Child and Family Caring Society of Canada.
Indigenous communities have been disrupted throughout Canadian history by systems that separated children from their families.
Sandra is forthright when she shares her experience and describes the pain inflicted on her family by the residential school system.
“My mom was there for 16 years,” she says. “I’m not able to embrace and hug my mom. It just doesn’t work.
Residential schools were government-sanctioned and church-run institutions established across Canada. Indigenous children were separated from their communities, and sometimes forced to travel hundreds of kilometres away to attend these schools.
There were over 130 schools in operation throughout the 19th and 20th centuries, with nine in the Yukon territory alone. It is estimated that, across the country, 150,000 First Nations, Inuit and Métis children went through the system during this time.
In many cases, these children were mistreated, abused and degraded by school staff. They were often punished for speaking their languages or practising their customs.
The pain left from the abuse and mistreatment was then passed down from family member to family member, in a phenomenon known as intergenerational trauma.
Sandra also attended residential school for several years during her childhood. She says the experience has affected her relationship with her eldest daughter, Cheyanne, just as residential school affected her relationship with her own mother.
“Because I went to residential school, I can’t hug her,” she says. “It’s uncomfortable.”
Sandra says she hopes to break the cycle of intergenerational trauma in her family with Crystal by making a habit of hugging her and showing physical affection.
“With Crys, I’m really trying to keep that connection, and continue that into her older years.”
Sandra isn’t alone in her experience with intergenerational trauma.
Many members of Louise Creyke’s family attended residential school at some point in their lives, including Louise herself. She says she can still see the effects in her loved ones today.
“My grandmother went to residential school, and I see it in all my aunties and uncles, and my dad,” she says. “I see the violence; I see things that are just a result of freaking residential school. Your language is taken away, and you’re just like a nobody, you know. And so, the cycle carries on.”
The practice of separating Indigenous children took on another form from 1951 to the mid-1980s, when Indigenous children were apprehended from their communities by provincial agents and adopted out en masse to primarily non-Indigenous, middle-class families. This period is known as the “Sixties Scoop.”
Today, Indigenous children are overrepresented in the Canadian foster care system.
In Canada, children who cannot be cared for by their legal guardians can be taken into foster care. The children’s aid society charged with their care then decides if they should remain with their legal guardian or be placed elsewhere.
According to the 2016 Canadian census, Indigenous children make up eight per cent of children under 15, but they represent just over half of children in care. In the Yukon alone, of the 400 kids in governmental care, more than 70 per cent are Indigenous.
With traditional adoption practices, Indigenous kids can avoid being separated from their communities, says Pauline Frost.
“There are times when unforeseen circumstances happen in a community,” she says. “And in western practices, you will see a child taken away and then put in a group home or put in a foster home. This, historically, rarely ever happened in our community.”
For Louise, custom adoption is a way of resisting sending more Indigenous children into the foster care system. The child gets to stay in their community, with family.
“We’ve had enough of our kids lost in residential schools who’ve never come home, (and) we’ve lost more than we can handle,” Louise says. “So, this (traditional adoption) is one way. We know where our kids are, right?”
In the Yukon, new governmental policies are paving the way for traditional adoption to be an alternative to foster care. As the minister of health and social services, Pauline has been actively involved in these changes.
While attending the Vuntut Gwitchin General Assembly in Old Crow in 2012, she heard many elders in the community express a need for the role of grandparents and extended family to be recognized and supported by the government.
“They passed a resolution, and the resolution spoke to the fact that we needed to support grandparents, not put up barriers,” says Pauline.
Carrying these perspectives with her as well as her own experiences, Pauline worked to pass the Extended Family Care Program, which launched in the territory in 2018. The program works with communities and families to match a child in care with extended family members and provides the family financial support to raise the child.
“I would say it’s almost identical to customary practices in our community,” Pauline says. “It means we get our children back into the community.”
As Crystal makes her way through the barren roads of Old Crow, she seems comfortable with the place she has called home for the past year.
But she only has a short time left here. She and Sandra are moving back to Grande Prairie, Alta., in December after Sandra’s contract as the health and social services director for the Vuntut Gwitchin government ends.
Though Grande Prairie acts as their home base, Crystal usually comes to Old Crow during summers to visit her older adopted sister, Cheyanne, who lives in the community. The Charlies often spend holidays here, as well.
Sandra says Crystal might not be able to catch and cook a fish like many of the other children in Old Crow, but she’s still very in-touch with her surroundings.
“Spiritually, she’s very connected,” Sandra says. “She’s really in-tune with things around her, feelings around her, or spirituality, I guess you could call it.”
Crystal says she will miss her biological sister, Ashlynn, more than anything else in Old Crow.
The two are practically inseparable. On any given day, you can spot them running around the community hand-in-hand, pushing their baby sister Kylie in a stroller.
Crystal pops her gum one last time and tosses it away. She’s completed her tour of Old Crow, and says she’s anxious to get home and see her mom, Sandra.
Later, in an interview over the phone, Sandra explains how Crystal has changed her life.
“The only way I can think of it is how my friend put it,” says Sandra. “I would die for my children, but I would live for my adopted children.”
Crystal skips home, the Porcupine River to her right.
Editor’s note: Interviews and information for this story were gathered during a community stay in Old Crow from July 13-25, 2019.