Dawn Quigley, the Turtle Mountain Ojibwe author of the YA novel “Apple in the Middle,” is fond of saying that there are many ways of being Native. Susan Devan Harness’ moving memoir, “Bitterroot,” explores the difficulties inherent in one way of being Native, that of the transracial adoptee.
Adopted when she was 2 by white parents, Harness grew up in the 1960s and matured into adulthood knowing that she was Native but not knowing what that meant, other than through the racist words and actions she repeatedly experienced as an indigenous person growing up in Montana.
The cover of the book features a photo of 7-year-old Susan holding a bitterroot flower. As he took the photo, her dad said, “For the Salish, the tribe you belong to, it is sacred.” Harness writes that by the time they were done shooting the picture, the flower didn’t “feel very sacred.”
Having no cultural context, “sacred” is a word without meaning to the young Susan, as is the word “Salish.”
In “Bitterroot,” Harness searches for that context, sharing what it means to grow up as a Salish person in largely white communities, and what sorts of challenges she faced in connecting to her birth family.
The book begins with this reunion, but with a skilled storyteller’s sense of suspense, Harness immediately flashes back to her childhood and lets her questions about her Salish identity and her journey to reconnect with her Salish kin emerge over the course of the book.
Harness’ book calls forth memories not only of her experiences as a Salish person, but also of her experiences as the child of an alcoholic father and of a mother who struggled with mental health issues, often disappearing for weeks at a time. She tells us about how they told her that her birth mother and father had died in a car crash, when what really happened was so much more complicated.
Harness addresses this complication in “Bitterroot”: What does it mean to be Native when you weren’t raised Native? What does it mean when the members of your birth family who remained on the reservation tell you that you were lucky to be raised elsewhere, but you don’t feel lucky?
Harness brings us right into the middle of these questions and shows how emotionally fraught they can be. Her story often brought me to tears.
If you’ve been moved by memoirs such as “Spirit Car” by Dakota writer Diane Wilson or “While the Locust Slept” by Ojibwe writer Peter Razor, add “Bitterroot” to your reading list. If you haven’t read any of these books, add them all. It’s time everyone learned about the many ways there are of being Native.
A White Earth Anishinaabe descendant, Carter Meland teaches at the University of Minnesota. His novel, “Stories for a Lost Child,” was a finalist for a Minnesota Book Award.
By: Susan Devan Harness.
Publisher: University of Nebraska Press, 335 pages, $29.95.