Adopted Michigan Natives discover home

Editor’s note: Last fall, Raymond “Raybo” DeZafra and his daughter Skye Howell took a bus from Arkansas to Dowagiac to participate in Ricing Camp and see the land they believe was once home. Raybo was adopted at five-years-old from a mother he knows was native, and is now seeking to open his sealed adoption records to discover his tribe. We will keep you posted on what Raybo discovers. Skye wrote the following reflection after their trip.

This fall, my father Raymond “Raybo” DeZafra and I returned to our homeland to visit the Pokagon Band of Potawatomi. I flew in from Texas for a conference in Denver and was able to take an extra day to travel to Dowagiac. My father rode the bus for 24 hours from Arkansas. Though our visit was short, it was incredibly moving and will stay forever in our memory. Megwetch to the DNR team and community who welcomed us.

My father was adopted away from his mother who was Potawatomi and Ottawa when he was only 5 years old in a closed adoption. The only records they have access to state that his mother was hearing impaired and poor. As an Indigenous woman with a disability during the late 50s, this was an easy reason for the government to consider her unfit to mother, in spite of living with her own mother who helped care for the four children. Raybo and his sister Betty were adopted and have not been reunited with their family and are in the process of unlocking their adoption records. We pray to one day meet the rest of our family.

We only had one day in town and took a chance on connecting with our tribal family travelling through the storm for the Ricing Camp. As we neared the community, we felt a sense of inner peace exuding from the land. We were HOME.

Although the ricing event had been officially cancelled, Jennifer Kanine, director of the Department of Natural Resources, and her team welcomed us with open arms to join in and learn about the process of ricing. We shared in laughter, food and fellowship for a few hours.

Our homecoming was unforgettable to us and will be forever held in our hearts. After the visit, we viewed the pow wow grounds and listened to the birchwood trees whisper the secrets of our elders.

We plan to come back annually for the pow wow in September.

Since our return home, I have been inspired to work with our local Indigenous community to increase relationships and support for Indigenous students within my role at Austin Community College. I look forward to a continued relationship with the Pokagon Potawatomi tribal community.

Below is a poetic tribute to our experience and the knowledge we gained:

Strong as a grain of rice
Prayers to plants that grow the yield
Birchwood canoes glide to honor the field
Scouts make sure the timing’s right
Gathering, drying, stirring with the paddle
with all your might
Dancing to the drumbeat in moccasins round
the firelight
Husking, sifting, sorting
Keeping each grain and husk all with purpose
The grain nourishes us one and All
We are Stronger when we answer our Elder’s call

Igwein/Heartfelt thanks Amen
Skye Howell