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'Daughter of a Lost Bird' tells story of adopted women connecting with each other, Lummi roots

They’re known as "the lost birds" – Native children who were adopted out of their tribal communities and placed with white families. Nearly 400 of these adoptions took place from 1958 to 1967 through a federal program called the Indian Adoption Project.

The ripple effects of that history is told in a new documentary about a mother and daughter with ties to the Lummi Nation, as they seek to connect with their Native identity.

The film is called "Daughter of a Lost Bird." It’s the first feature documentary from director Brooke Pepion Swaney, who specializes in contemporary Indigenous stories. 

I'm a Blackfeet-enrolled tribal member and a descendant of the Bitterroot Salish in Montana. And so my Native identity has always played a role in my life,” she says.

She got the idea for this documentary kind of by accident, while working on a short fiction film. The actor she cast to play the role of a Native adoptee is Kendra Mylnechuk Potter, who coincidentally had that lived experience. She knew she was adopted at birth by a white family. She thought she had Native heritage, but had no proof. The director urged her to find out.  

“You know, especially being that she had been put up for a lot of Indigenous roles and was feeling pretty uncomfortable with that fact. You know, I just wanted to support her in her journey of finding where she's from and reconnecting because it's so important to me,” Swaney says.   

But there was an added challenge. Kendra’s birth mother also was adopted by white parents, with no record of her birth parents. This was in 1980, and tension was high around Native adoptions. The Indian Child Welfare Act had just passed, aiming to keep Native children with Native families. Early scenes in the film depict the tension around that. Even though Kendra’s parents were completely open with her about the fact that she was adopted, they downplayed any Native ties for fear she could be taken from them.   

The film opens with the scene when Kendra calls her birth mother, April, for the first time and follows her for nearly seven years as she uncovers her Native identity and learns of her mother’s traumatic past, which included pregnancy at age 17, addiction and life on the streets.

“Her generation, the statistics, I think, were: 1 in 4 Native children were taken outside of their community and raised. And those children were called lost birds,” Kendra says.  “And so she comes from the lost generation. And I am the daughter of a lost bird. So it's this ripple effect of cultural genocide.”

Despite that legacy, once Kendra decides to find her birth mother, it happens quickly.  

“It turned out it wasn't that hard," Kendra says. "When I found out that she was open to meeting me, I also found out that I was Lummi, which was information that she had discovered. About 20 years after she gave birth to me."

April reunited with her father after he sought her out and reclaimed her and celebrated her heritage. Some of the most powerful storytelling in the film is April’s retelling of that time. Her father died subsequently, before her reunion with Kendra. But clearly finding him gave her strength and added resilience.

What was and still is hard, for both women, is feeling fully connected to their Native roots. The film depicts two visits they make to the Lummi Nation near Bellingham, where they join ceremonies and are embraced by community. The Lummi Grandparents committee welcomes them.

But in the end, Kendra says, despite ongoing contact with several relatives, she’s still uneasy. Having grown up in a white world, unaware of the uncomfortable history of how the U.S. government tried to erase Native cultures, reclaiming her Lummi identity is hard. But she says she’s learned that comfort doesn’t equal wellness or wholeness.  

“I don't want my children to have the questions that I have, and I want them to know where they came from. I want also to better unpack and understand the white supremacy that I — you know, the soup I swim in — what I've grown up in. Part of unpacking that is understanding that I am both,” Kendra says.  

She confesses that she has yet to complete the paperwork to enroll as a member of the Lummi Nation. She intends to do so soon and make annual visits to the area with her husband and two children in the coming years.

The film is screening online through Thursday night as part of the Human Rights Watch Film Festival. There’s a discussion and Q&A about it at 5:30 p.m. May 26 featuring the director, subject and many Indigenous experts.

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