I Didn't Know I Was Adopted

Seventeen years ago this month, I was in the middle of a full-blown identity crisis. I didn't know who or what I was anymore, let alone what to call myself. As our nation turns to observe National Adoption Month, I'm reminded of accidentally discovering, at the age of twenty, that I was adopted.

Growing up in Las Vegas, being adopted was something I never suspected. As far back as I can remember, my mother told me that I shared her ancestry, which she said was a mixture of Italian, Irish, and Lakota.

As I grew up, I began learning about what I was told was my Lakota heritage. I read about our history and about inspirational Lakota leaders like Crazy Horse and Sitting Bull. When kids at school asked about my ancestry, I told them I was Lakota and did my best to ignore the war whoops, tomahawk chops, and laughter that I was going to become the stereotypical Indian drunk that often followed. Their racist remarks hurt me deeply, but I did my best not to let it show.

As I grew older, I learned more about our Lakota ways of life. I first prayed with the chanupa, or sacred pipe, when I was eleven. I learned about how the smoke from natural plants like sage and sweetgrass can purify us, how the feathers of eagles can give us guidance and protection. Ours was a culture that bore no resemblance to the racist caricatures so often portrayed in movies and sporting events. It took years to overcome the racism I experienced, but in time I became proud to be Lakota.

All the while, the man I was told was my biological father was absent from my life. Whenever I asked about my father's side of the family, my mother told me not to ask questions until I was ready to hear the answer. It was a cryptic response that, as a child, I never understood.

As time went on, my mother and I went through a series of traumatic events. My step-father became a drug-abusing adulterer who stalked us. My grandfather died of a sudden heart attack in front of us just days after saving my life. After going through so much, my mother didn't want to overwhelm me any further. So she kept my adoption a secret.

It wasn't until I was twenty and in college that I discovered I was adopted. I had learned that I needed to prove my ancestry in order to become an enrolled member of my tribe. And I needed to be enrolled in order to legally keep the eagle feathers with which I prayed and to participate in certain ceremonies. Not getting enrolled meant I could be thrown in prison--for following my spirituality.

My father and I managed to reconnect that summer in Las Vegas. But after I returned to my college in South Dakota, I got a letter from my father's parents. They told me through an off-hand remark that I was adopted. It was something they thought I already knew.

The discovery shook me to my core. Suddenly the room was spinning. I no longer knew who or what I was. I didn't know if I'd ever be able to use my eagle feathers again. I didn't know if I was still Lakota or if I should still call myself DaShanne, which I learned was the third or fourth name I was actually given. Looking at the name glaring back at me from my "original" birth certificate and driver's license, it felt like my whole life was a lie.

In time, I realized that even though I may never know if I have Lakota ancestry or not that my experiences, values, and beliefs never changed. How much I knew about "what" I was had been radically transformed, but "who" I was remained the same.

The experience also taught me that, contrary to popular belief, race and culture are not the same thing. Notions of race and ancestry get at "what" we are and what others think we are, while culture or ethnicity gets at our values and beliefs, the deeper question of "who" we are.

Many people think it's "what" we are that matters most. Some have told me I should get a DNA test, that only that could determine if I am really Lakota. My views might be controversial, but I think no one's religious freedom should depend on a blood test, ancestry, or political membership. My experiences have taught me that no test can tell you who you really are.

So when I'm asked today, I say that by race or ancestry "what" I am is white, as far as I can tell, but culturally "who" I am is Lakota. By the confused and angry reactions I've sometimes gotten, it's a hard thing for some people to understand and accept. People have called me a "wannabe" and "Dances with Wolves." Some might even confuse me with Rachel Dolezal.

But this is not something I chose, and I've never hidden my race or ancestry from anyone. This is simply who I am, the identity, values, beliefs, and experiences I grew up with. It's that indescribable something buried deep inside me, a core that's never changed.

Since discovering I was adopted, I've come to look very differently on this time of year. For me, November is no longer a month bursting with cultural mythology, cranberries, and turkey. It is a month to celebrate adoption, a time in which we rejoice in the ability of family to bring people together, to transcend even the barriers of blood and race. Not coincidentally for me, it is also Native American Heritage Month: a time for celebrating indigenous peoples and the traditions I grew up with. It's been a difficult journey, but today I celebrate both.

Happy National Adoption Month and Native American Heritage month.

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DaShanne Stokes is an author, speaker, and commentator known for his work on adoption, civil rights, and social justice. He recently completed a memoir about his experiences. An earlier version of this article originally appeared on CNN.