Children of the Dragonfly: Native American Voices On Child Custody and Education - The Book as Village

By Robert Bensen

The anthology of Native American writing that I edited, Children of the Dragonfly, was begun not long after my wife and I learned that our adoptive infant daughter was of Native as well as European ancestry. We had many questions about what to do. We wondered what that might mean for her and for us as parents.

Fast-forward ten years, and Children of the Dragonfly: Native American Voices On Child Custody and Education, appeared from the University of Arizona Press in 2001. The book collects writing by Native American people raised in adoptive and foster-care and other non-Indian settings such as boarding schools, as well as related fiction and poetry—the first such collection. Many people responded to calls I sent out to various Native e-groups, including WordCraft Circle of Native Writers and Storytellers for original contributions. It would establish a new area of concern in American Indian literature devoted to childhood and family. I thought it could embrace traditional upbringing (as figured in instructive, older stories), as well as boarding schools and adoptive and foster-care homes, and a broad range of issues in trans-cultural adoption and child-rearing.

I wanted the book to help support, however modestly, organizations devoted to the well-being of Indian children and families. Royalties continue to aid the American Indian Community House (NYC), Native American Rights Fund, American Indian College Fund, AAIA, Running Strong for American Indian Youth, NICWA, and others. In the first years, royalties were sufficient to share among the authors as well.

I found the book could do all that and more: I found in it the proverbial village it takes to raise a child. This village is full of people who, at least most of them, have never met except between the covers of the book. Until they saw my call for people raised in adoptive or foster care settings to contribute their story, many of the writers told me they thought they were the only one. They thought they were alone.

And it took a child to bring this village together. The book has given back to the authors who wrote for it, who are also Dragonfly’s children. Some were published there for the first time. Writing for the book advanced everyone’s journey toward understanding who they are and where they came from. Among them are artists who have pursued their life-issues in new ways in Native galleries and museums. Others work in adoption and social services, or in community organizations related to child welfare and education. Some found a new direction and energy for learning the cultural ways that had been denied them. Some are writers for whom Dragonfly has opened new areas for their work, and who are leaders in Native writing circles, publishing, and mentoring.

In an old Zuni story, Dragonfly is the form an ancient spirit takes to provide for two abandoned children. As Carter Revard writes in the “Foreword,” Dragonfly lately made his body of the book, and within it and from it and surrounding it are a host of people who have, loosely speaking, adopted our daughter back in loving ways—so she has aunts and uncles and cousins from many nations, including Cherokee, Seneca, Mohawk, Onondaga, Cayuga, Oneida, Tuscarora, Shinnecock, Innu, Navajo, Osage, and Lakota and others. Those in the book sometimes led us to others as well. Some have passed into the spirit-world but return for her in ceremony and dream. Everyone has taught her something of her Native heritage.

Our daughter was at an Aboriginal dance workshop in Toronto last summer. Certainly she was the fairest of them all, though her hair has turned from blonde to brown as she’s grown up. A woman came to teach some social dances to the group, and had gathered the dancers in a circle to talk to them. She said that these dances were not sacred, so they could be shared, but that they were seldom, if ever, taught to non-Natives. She was looking at our daughter when she said this, and that she had asked the elders for permission, since there were non-Natives involved.

When she finished, my daughter replied that, while she may look non-Native to some on the outside, inside her heart was red. Though she was adopted, she had always learned all she could about her ancestry. She had been given a clan and a name. “And besides,” she said, “do you know the story of Goldilocks?”
“The old one?” the woman replied.
“No, the old Cherokee one,” she said, and told how, in Mary Ulmer Chiltoskey’s retelling, Goldilocks flees the house of the three bears and is soon tired and hungry. As she wanders lost in the woods, she smells some good cooking. She follows her nose to a clearing with some dark-skinned children and adults, and some log cabins and fires with pots cooking on them. Goldilocks doesn’t understand their language, but they understand her hunger, and so feed and shelter her.

Many days later a U.S. Indian agent comes around to enroll families. He sees a blonde girl playing with the dark-skinned children and asks the woman watching them if all those children are hers. “Yes,” she says, because she cared for the girl. The man marks them all down as “F,” full-blood Cherokees. As the story goes, the girl grew and married a Cherokee man. Among their children was one little blonde girl. And so it came to be that there is a Goldilocks in every Cherokee family.

That’s the story our daughter remembered from Children of the Dragonfly to tell at that moment, when her identity and rightful place were being challenged. That was one more gift of the village of the book. It has given her ground to stand on, among those who care for her. And who knows, maybe that’s why the worlds she makes hoop dancing never fall apart.

Copyright © Robert Bensen 2010. All rights reserved.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Robert Bensen is an invited member of WordCraft Circle of Native Writers and Storytellers, whose poems and essays appear widely in U.S., U.K., West Indian and Native American journals such as Akwe:kon and Native Realities. His poems have been collected in five chapbooks (Orenoque, Scriptures of Venus, and others), and he has been awarded an NEA poetry fellowship and the 1996 Robert Penn Warren Award. Since 1978 he has been Director of Writing at Hartwick College in Oneonta, New York. He teaches writing as well as courses in American Indian law and literature, and is the editor of
Children of the Dragonfly: Native American Voices on Child Custody and Education, The University of Arizona Press.

Robert Bensen has released a new collection of poems titled Orenoque, Wetumka, and Other Poemsin collaboration with Professor of Art Phil Young, whose artwork is featured on the cover. A reading to launch the book will be held at the publisher on Thursday, November 1, at 7 p.m., Bright Hill Literary Center, Treadwell, New York.

"We have stories / as old as the great seas / breaking through the chest / flying out the mouth, / noisy tongues that once were silenced, /all the oceans we contain / coming to light." —Linda Hogan

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