Weaving a new life: Conversing with Dine adoptee Leland Morrill

By Trace A. DeMeyer
News From Indian Country April 2011

There was a reason Indian leaders went to the Senate in the 1970s and demanded an inquiry into the staggering number of children disappearing in Indian Country.

It was not just boarding schools creating this mass exodus of children. Adoption programs in 16 states removed 85% of Native children. Programs like the Adoption Resource Exchange of North America (ARENA), established by the Child Welfare League of America in 1967, funded in part by the Bureau of Indian Affairs, paid states to remove children and place them with non-Indian adoptive families and religious groups like the Mormon Church. ARENA expanded to include all Canadian and United States adoption agencies and offered them financial assistance.

As William Byler, executive director of the Association of American Indian Affairs, testified, “…in Minnesota, 90 percent of the adopted Indian children are in non-Indian homes.”

In 1976, Byler told senators that for many tribes, survival was at stake; Congress agreed tribal stability was as important as that of the best interests of the child, which eventually lead to the passage of the Indian Child Welfare Act of 1978.

A striking example is Indian Placement Program. By the 1970s, an estimated 5,000 Indian children were living in Mormon homes. Francis R. McKenna wrote in the Journal of American Indian Education, “… Christian churches have developed massive programs for adoption of Indian children. Adoption of Indian youth is some 20 times the national average. For Navajos alone, some 2,000 children are spirited away for adoption annually by a single agency, the Mormon Church.”

Leland Morrill, Dine/Navajo, is one of ten Native children adopted by one Mormon family under one of the ARENA programs. Leland, now living in California, was adopted on July 15, 1971. He was 4 years old.

Do you know what happened to bring about your being adopted?
Leland Morrill:  I found out it was my Navajo mother Linda Carolyn Kirk’s responsibility to enroll me into the tribe and she should have obtained a census number for me at my birth or within a reasonable time. She didn’t... I will never know why because she was killed in a car accident in Albuquerque in September 1968. She was living off the reservation. After she died, I was taken to St. Anthony’s orphanage, not affiliated with any tribal nation. My natural father, whoever he is, never claimed me. From the orphanage I was returned to the Navajo Nation and my mother’s relatives. I have been able to piece together that I was abused and neglected by them. When I suffered severe first, second and third degree burns, and broken bones, I was admitted to Keams Canyon Indian Health Services clinic then transferred to the Gallup Indian Hospital. The BIA intervened and assigned Ms. McCray of Arizona Social Services as my caseworker. She found my Mormon foster/adoptive parents, Stan and Gwena Morrill, so I was placed with them upon my release from the Gallup Indian Hospital. I was in foster care for 22 months then adopted by the Morrill’s.

Since you were fostered then adopted, did the tribe or its lawyers appear in any of the proceedings concerning your care and placement?
Yes, Andy G. Smith, a DNA Legal Aid advocate, acted as guardian to the estate of Linda Kirk, my mother. She had life insurance since she was working at the Albuquerque Federal Building. DNA People’s Legal Services is a nonprofit who provides free legal aid for seven tribes in three states, helping low income people get access to tribal, state and federal justice systems.

Do you read your adoption file?
I do not have access to it because I am not a member of the Navajo Nation. I applied for membership to the Navajo Nation on March 22, 2011. After that, I’m assuming access will be granted by the Navajo Nation but I am not feeling that is a guarantee.

How has not being enrolled affected you?
I have been weaving together my pre-adoption life up to my adoption, though the tribe has not supplied me or my adoptive parents any credible documentation or explanation concerning my lack of enrollment. I have a theory. By not enrolling me into the tribe in 1968 when my mother died, the Navajo Nation avoided the “prior approval of the Advisory Committee”... they’d set up these rules in 1960 concerning Navajo children being adopted out. Since the BIA had a role here, they would have advised against enrolling me, possibly, which made me adoptable. Navajo Judge Joe Bennally should have had me enrolled; it was his duty, but he didn’t. The Navajo Tribal Council would have never investigated because I was never enrolled in the tribe by my mother or the judge.

Were you and your nine adopted siblings required to convert to the Mormon religion and expected to be missionaries?
Yes, we converted. None of the ten adopted children went on missions. One of us, Virginia (Ginny), is a practicing Mormon now.

Did the Morrill’s receive compensation as your foster parents?
My parents would have been paid at least $65 per month, per child before our adoptions and $65 each after the adoption, for a temporary period of time. My sister Virginia, also Navajo, and I were handled under ARENA, funded by the BIA.  Our (mixed blood) brother Shaun was adopted as a baby out of a court in Phoenix, not tribal court. The Morrill’s moved to Canada the day after I was adopted.... effectively removing me, my sister and my brother from any biological family or tribal connection.  I have asked myself, “Why so far... why Canada?”  My father says they were transferred. With the LDS Church Education System, doesn’t one request a transfer? In Canada, my adoptive parents adopted seven more kids, all are Ojibwe siblings. I’m assuming there was ARENA money for them, too.

Did you know or meet other Mormons families who had also adopted Native American children?
Yes, my mother’s friends, the Johnson’s, adopted Native children, but I am not sure which tribe. They lived in Chinle, Arizona when we did. John Christensen was my mom’s boss at LDS Social Services in Rapid City and they adopted a Native child. My adopted mother eventually worked as a secretary for LDS Social Services, a division which handles Mormon adoptions.

The facts

These are the facts. Between 1958 and 1967, CWLA cooperated with the Bureau of Indian Affairs, under a federal contract, to facilitate an experiment in which 395 Indian children were removed from their tribes and cultures for adoption by non-Indian families. This experiment began primarily in the New England states. CWLA channeled federal funds to its oldest and most established private agencies first, to arrange the adoptions, though public child welfare agencies were also involved toward the end of this period. Exactly 395 adoptions of Indian children were done and studied during this 10-year period, with the numbers peaking in 1967.

ARENA, the Adoption Resource Exchange of North America, began in early 1968 as the successor to the BIA/CWLA Indian Adoption Project. Counting the period before 1958 and some years after it, CWLA was partly responsible for approximately 650 children being taken from their tribes and placed in non-Indian homes. For some of you, this story is a part of your personal history. Through this project, BIA and CWLA actively encouraged states to continue and to expand the practice of “rescuing” Native children from their own culture, from their very families. Because of this legitimizing effect, the indirect results of this initiative cannot be measured by the numbers I have cited.  Paternalism under the guise of child welfare is still alive in many locations today, as you well know.  

– Working Together to Strengthen Supports for Indian Children and Families: A National Perspective, Keynote Speech by Shay Bilchik at the NICWA Conference, Anchorage, Alaska on April 24, 2001
How was it growing up in a house full of 10 kids - what was a typical day?
That would depend on the day and the year. We had specific rituals as a family. We woke up by 6:30 am, read scriptures from the Old/New testament, Book of Mormon, Doctrine and Covenance, rarely from The Pearl of Great Price. We did the children’s versions then graduated to “The Standard Works.”

After scriptures, we had family prayer, went on a 15 minute walk/run, got ready for breakfast then off to school. As the years progressed, we would rise earlier and go to early morning seminary. My dad was the local ecclesiastical leader and the area coordinator for the LDS Seminary & Institute program for the Mormon Church. I think his title trumps the Bishop and Stake President.

We were encouraged to do extra-curricular activities, like I was in the band, and ran track and field. We’d come home after school and had assigned chores that would rotate; sometimes it was cleaning the bathrooms, sometimes the living room, shovel snow, chop wood, wash the cars... we all rotated without regard to our sex. Of course kids had favorite jobs and sometimes we’d trade each other. Then we’d eat dinner and do homework. By 9-10 pm, we’d go to sleep.

Later, when I was 9, dad set up the Morrill Family Services, a janitorial company. We kids cleaned buildings like a cytology/histology lab and then a local blood clinic. I did it for seven years until I was 16, in addition to having a paper route. Some of my brothers were hired out to do yard work and shovel snow.

On weekends my adopted mom liked to go to garage sales so sometimes we'd all end up at them. Of course we’d clean houses since the Morrill Family Services had jobs on Saturdays. We had a huge garden and all of us were assigned weeding, taking certain areas.  I always traded for the strawberry patch because I like them. So we’d prepare for Sabbath, cooking, cleaning, setting the table, washing clothes, ironing, things you’d do on a normal day; we always set up for Sunday Sabbath.

Sundays were for church. We’d be up 7 am, then get ready for three hours of church. We’d come home, eat, mom and dad would have their alone time and us kids would go outside and play quietly, or take a nap. My sister Sheila liked to tan so sometimes all ten of us would be outside tanning our brown bodies on the deck or the side lawn. We rarely included the other two, Kaelyn and Shelly, who were our parents “natural” kids.

Where do you live now?
I live in Los Angeles, California. Oddly I felt I was called here. I found out 50 years ago (in 1961) my mother Linda lived here in LA.

Where are your siblings?
Shaun and Adam live in Salt Lake City; Keith is in Pueblo, Colorado; Sharon is in Springfield, Missouri; Robert is in Tennessee, he just moved; Ginny lives in Magna, Utah; Cindy lives in Madison, Wisconsin; Debbie is in Raleigh, North Carolina; Shelly is in Denver; Sheila is in Mount Hope, West Virginia; and Kaelyn is in Draper, Utah.

Are you the oldest?
No, I am number 8. We counted off 1,2,3,4,5,6,7,8,9,10,11,12, eldest to youngest, when we went anywhere... like the Von Trapp whistles.

Where did you attend school?
I first went to school in Burford in Ontario (Canada), then Elementary, Junior High and High School in Rapid City, South Dakota, then Salt Lake Community College in Salt Lake City and Brigham Young University in Provo, Utah.

What subjects did you like in school?
I was fascinated with almost any subject. My problem is the structured class; I can read a whole textbook and take a final exam in 3 days. Our classes lasted for 3 months. I can be impatient. I really liked my computer classes in the 80s when “Windows” came out, and especially real estate law... in fact I’m going to a seminar at UCLA School of Law on April 9, 2011.

What did you study in College?
I actually didn't finish. I studied real estate, statistics, family law and computer science.

What career path have you chosen?
My first job out of college was working for AIS, worked my way up from data entry to Assistant VP of operations for our Seattle/SLC/Denver offices, with 16-18 hour days, and a great salary, of course. I was a lead researcher for Fidelity Information Systems, only to be replaced by the cheaper Phillipines and India work mills. Previous to that I worked for the Federal Reserve Bank writing training manuals, and I worked as their information security liaison-reconciler. I'm self-employed now, but it’s very tough in this economy. I have two businesses, Desert Power LLC, and My New Blinds.

Have you had any counseling for being adopted?
Not specifically for being adopted. Therapy, group sessions, AA, even seminars are all good ways to understand and improve yourself. Actually no one tells you you've been robbed of your identity. But yes I would recommend therapy, especially for older adoptees who remember their past. I would recommend therapy to deal with dynamics of the parent/child non-biological relationship, how to verbalize, how to ask, tell, state your wants, needs, desires, how to operate as a human being. Non-biological parents don't understand you and you don't understand them; each person should understand this and have tools to communicate.

Did you feel injury or trauma or isolation?
No. I was taken away from abuse, neglect, malnutrition from those who injured and traumatized me, a child only 1-3 years old, long before the age of reason. I think as an adoptee, isolation comes with the new territory. It becomes the new normal because there is no biological connection. Sure, I tried to read, do sports, swim, run, bike, hike, etc. Yes, I am still alone. But now I enjoy being alone. I also have chosen my own friends and support group who I can and do call on when we need and want to be around each other.

Many adoptees have admitted they have issues with bonding and low self-esteem. Has being adopted affected your ability to trust and love?
 Leland Morrill (Navajo) met recently
with Chai Feldblum U.S. Equal
Employment Opportunity Commissioner (left),
to discuss the Real ID Act of 2005 and
how it affects Native Americans who are
adopted without an original birth certificate,
census number, or certificate of Indian blood.

Very good question. Bonding? I choose who I can bond with and made many platonic friendships easily. My best friend and I have been friends for 26 years and talk at least twice a day in addition to texting, emailing and facebook.

Low self-esteem? I really don’t understand that. Perhaps this doesn’t apply to me. Yes, I have low moments and recognize them. If I need help getting out of my funk, I have mentors, friends, AA, to bounce things off. By the way, on the AA thing, my older sister Sheila had to go to AA so when I was younger, I went with her for something to do... I still go on occasion... last weekend I went to an AA meeting.

Trust? I trust my true friends, support group people I choose to love above anyone else.

Love? Intimacy I never learned. We Morrill’s never hugged, kissed or any of that until I was in 12th grade. We got therapy to teach us - this coming from a father with a bachelor’s degree in psychology.

Have you made contact with your tribal relatives?
I found them because when I was studying at BYU in 1984, I met Leanne Begay from Ganado, Arizona and she knew several people in my Kirk family. The following summer a friend and I went to Ganado to visit my mother’s uncle, John Kirk. He took the place of father when my grandfather abandoned them. I also met John’s wife Ruth Shirley Kirk. Both spoke only Navajo so my cousin Calvin Kirk interpreted.... it was awkward for me since I only spoke English and French.

Did Dine relatives help you readjust?
I’m still reacquainting. Most relatives went to boarding schools off the rez; some lived in Wisconsin, Oklahoma, New York, Los Angeles, all over. I think culture remains on the rez. Overall they haven't shared that with me. From another perspective, the government’s assimilation and boarding schools were successful in hurting culture.

Back in 1985, I went back for a day, and they did kill a sheep; the women cooked and we men ate first. I assumed it was customary. I treated it like a formality.

Have you been to pow wows, socials and ceremonies?
Just pow wows put on by Brigham Young University’s Lamanite Generation.  According to the Book of Mormon, a Lamanite is a member of a dark-skinned nation of Nephite nation. I really do not know which tribes were representative of the Lamanite Generation at BYU.

Have you thought about taking back your name?
Well, actually I’ve kidded over the years, Kirk is easier than Morrill. After all those “Moral jokes,” I’d rather be Captain Kirk.

Do you have a photo of your birthmother? What do you know about her?
I did once. There was only one photo and I lost it in a move. A box went missing with my memories and that was in the box. I looked stunningly like her. I have my father's crooked smile, if it was him in the picture. I had that picture less than a year, back in 1985. I know statistical things about her, where she went to boarding school, her social security number, birthdate and date of death. I know where she died, and approximately where she is buried.

Is it possible your dad was also Navajo?
Anything is possible. I've heard he's San Felipe Pueblo and San Domingo Pueblo, too.

Relatives said you had a brother? What do you know about him?
His name: Christopher Kirk. He was younger, and he died. That's it. I never saw a picture, so I don’t know what he looked like. But strangely I have feelings for him. It’s like something is missing. I’ve grieved for him. WHY? I haven't a clue.

Have you thought about living on your rez?
No, not really. I might if I could design programs that would help my nation, such as writing and research, something useful. Oddly I could do everything I'm doing now on my rez.

Do you have a relationship with your adoptive parents now?
Yes, it comes and goes. It's not the same as a biological connection. It takes work and maintenance over and above what Kaelyn and Shelly take for granted being their biological kids. 

What about contact with your siblings?
I talk, facebook, text everyone except my one sister Debbie.

Was it difficult to discuss adoption growing up?
We didn't discuss adoption at all. We were kept busy at all times. We just never brought it up; it was never talked about.

At what age did you realize what adoption really meant?
I understood some Indians at church were foster children and went home to their parents. I stayed with Stan and Gwena. At 10-11 years old, I truly understood.

Did you hear derogatory terms about Indians from your parents or other people?
Not from my parents. From others, yes. We grew up in all white neighborhoods, went to all white schools. I just dealt with it. I had good friends who took care of me.

Have relatives taught you language and are you going to learn more?
No they haven’t. Many of the Kirks speak English. I've been learning some words on YouTube... some white friends are now greeting me with ‘Ya at ahee,’ which makes us all laugh.

Were you closer to any siblings more than others?
Yes. We have two sides to our family, the American side and the Canadian side. The seven Canadians are all from one family. They all have their own way of communicating. The Americans: Kaelyn, Shelly (the Morrill natural kids), Ginny, me and Shaun all hang out together more. Shaun and I run My New Blinds business together. We are the tricksters, the jokers and tend to keep the family lively. He just broke into mom’s Facebook account and sent out some hilarious commentary. Ginny and I are like twins. We read each other and know what the other thinks. We were adopted together on July 15, 1971.

I am the “peacemaker” in our family. I can speak to anyone, and I do. I can be the most candid and talk about what most would prefer not to, with ease. I bring out why certain people in our family don't talk to others. 

Was there any abuse in your family?
With the Morrill’s, it was just old fashioned punishment with a belt or a switch; with them there was no sparing the rod. But we're all alive and we've all dealt with what we considered abusive. With the Kirks, I was malnourished and weighed (at most) 30 pounds when I became a foster child. Those severe burns, I have the skin grafts to prove it; I had two broken arms. My right eye still gets tired easily... something that was wrong before my adoption. There was no sexual abuse, but we did run away... constantly.

Did your siblings have any success finding their tribal relatives?
Yes, all of them. I am the last one. My search was the hardest because I was an orphan and undocumented.

You had your wallet and identification stolen. What happened when you went to replace it?
The California Department of Motor Vehicles (DMV) said I needed a state-issued birth certificate because of the new Real ID Act of 2005, it’s a post-9-11 act. I still had my old Utah driver’s license so in May 2010, I went to the Utah DMV and received a temporary driver’s license using my adoption papers, social security card, and my Mormon baptismal record. For any new driver’s license, you’ll need an original birth certificate. I don’t have that. Not many adoptees do. I found out states will only issue a temporary driver’s license or temporary identification card which is what I have now. The temporary is good for a period of one year.

Hopefully my Facebook page, Change for Native Americans Affected by THE REAL ID ACT of 2005, will help. In early 2010, I e-mailed Representative F. James Sensenbrenner (R-WI) to explain how “H.R. 419 The Real ID ACT of 2005” is affecting me and how it could affect other Native adoptees. When we apply for an id or driver’s license, we will no longer qualify. So far, Rep. Sensenbrenner’s office has not replied. Once a temporary license expires, Native American adoptees, me included, become undocumented, thus illegal with no papers.

After 22 years, I now have a copy of the State of Arizona “Certificate of No Birth,”  issued on December 21, 2010, after I did continuous research beginning September 07, 1989. With the help of close friends, family, people willing to help, using my own financing and tens of thousands of dollars later, I now have my State of Arizona “Certificate of No Birth” and a second six-month temporary driver’s license expiring July 13, 2011. Then my United States of America citizenship expires.

Leland met recently with Chai Feldblum, the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commissioner, to discuss the Real ID Act of 2005. He explained, “We discussed how it affects Native Americans who are adopted out of their respective tribes without a birth certificate, Census number, or Certificate of Indian Blood. When the Final Decree of Adoption does not state our biological parent name(s), birth date, birth place, or census number, it’s separating the adoptee from their birthright and now it affects our employment, creating a sub-class of unemployable “former” US Citizens who now are forced to find their way back to their respective tribal heritage. With 22+ years of advocating for adoptees, I am now in process of writing an Amendment to The Real ID Act of 2005 with Ms. Feldblum.  She will present it and talk to the author of The Real ID Act, Jim Sensenbrenner (R-Wisconsin).”


Trace A. DeMeyer, author of One Small Sacrifice: Lost Children of the Indian Projects, is an adoptee who does not have her original birth certificate from the state of Minnesota where she was born but an amended (fake) birth certificate listing her adopted parents as her natural parents in Wisconsin. Trace lives in Massachusetts and will be publishing Split Feathers: Two Worlds in June 2011 with her co-author Patricia Busbee, a Cherokee adoptee. Lee Morrill’s story will be in the new book.