Native American Adoption

Adoption is an almost universal political and social institution which originally dealt only with persons but later with families, clans or gentes, bands, and tribes. It had its beginnings far back in the history of primitive society and, after passing through many forms and losing much ceremonial garb, appears to-day in the civilized institution of naturalization. In the primitive mind the fundamental motive underlying adoption was to defeat the evil purpose of death to remove a member of the kinship group by actually replacing in person the lost or dead member. In primitive philosophy, birth and death are the results of magic power; birth increases and death decreases the orenda of the clan or family of the group affected. In order to preserve that magic power intact, society, by the exercise of constructive orenda, resuscitates the dead in the person of another in whom is embodied the blood and person of the dead. As the diminution of the number of the kindred was regarded as having been caused by magic power, by the orenda of some hostile agency, so the prevention or reparation of that loss must be accomplished by a like power, manifested in ritualistic liturgy and ceremonial. Front the view point of the primitive mind adoption serves to change, by a fiction of law, the personality as well as the political status of the adopted person.

For example, there were captured two white persons (sisters) by the Seneca, and instead of both being adopted into one clan, one was adopted by the Deer and the other by the Heron clan, and thus the blood of the two sisters was changed by the rite of adoption in such ways that their children could intermarry. Furthermore, to satisfy the underlying concept of the rite, the adopted person must be brought into one of the strains of kinship in order to define the standing of such person in the community, and the kinship name which the person receives declares his relation to all other persons in the family group; that is to say, should the adopted person be named son rather than uncle by the adopter, his status in the community would differ accordingly.

Front the political adoption of the Tuscarora by the Five Nations, about 1726, it is evident that tribes, families, clans, and groups of people could be adopted like persons. A fictitious age might be conferred upon the person adopted, since age largely governed the rights, duties, and position of persons in the community. In this way, by the action of the constituted authorities, the age of an adopted group was fixed and its, social and political importance thereby determined. Owing to the peculiar circumstances of the expulsion of the Tuscarora from North Carolina was deemed best by the Five Nations, in view of their relation to the Colonies at that time, to give an asylum to the Tuscarora simply by means of the institution of adoption rather than by the political recognition of the Tuscarora as a member of the league. Therefore the Oneida made a motion in the federal council of the Five Nations that they adopt the Tuscarora as a nursling still swathed to the cradleboard. This having prevailed, the Five Nations, by the spokesman of the Oneida, said: “We have set up for ourselves a cradle-board in the extended house,” that is, in the dominions of the League. After due probation the Tuscarora, by separate resolutions of the council, on separate motions of the Oneida, were made successively a boy, a young man, a man, all assistant to the official woman cooks, a warrior, and lastly a peer, having the right of chiefship in the council on an equal footing with the chiefs of the other tribes. From this it is seen that a tribe or other group of people may be adopted upon any one of several planes of political growth, corresponding to the various ages of human growth.

This seems to explain the problem of the alleged subjugation and degradation of the Delaware by the Iroquois, which is said to have been enacted in open council. When it is understood that the Five Nations adopted the Delaware tribe as men assistants to the official cooks of the League it becomes clear that no taint of slavery and degradation was designed to be given by the act. It merely made the Delaware probationary heirs to citizenship in the League, and citizenship would be conferred upon them after suitable tutelage. In this they were treated with much greater consideration than were the Tuscarora, who are of the language and lineage of the Five Nations. The Delaware were not adopted as warriors or chiefs, but as assistant cooks; neither were they adopted, like the Tuscarora, as infants, but as men whose duty it was to assist the women whose official function was to cook for the people at public assemblies. Their office was hence well exemplified by the possession of a corn pestle, a hoe, and petticoats.

This fact, misunderstood, perhaps intentionally misrepresented, seems to explain the mystery concerning the “making women” of the Delaware. This kind of adoption was virtually a state of probation, which could he made long or short.

The adoption of a chief’s son by a follow chief, customary in some of the tribes of the northwest coast, differs in motive and effect from that defined above, which concerns persons alien to the tribe, upon whom it confers citizenship in the clan, gens, and tribe, as this deals only with intra-tribal persons for the purpose of conferring some degree of honor upon them rather than citizenship and political authority.

The Iroquois, in order to recruit the great losses incurred in their many wars, put into systematic practice, the adoption not only of individuals but also of entire clans and tribes. The Tutelo, the Saponi, the Nanticoke, and other tribes and portions of tribes were forced to incorporate with the several tribes of the Iroquois confederation by formal adoption.

After the Pequot war the Narraganset adopted a large body of the Pequot. The Chickasaw adopted a section of the Natchez, and the Uchee were incorporated with the Creeks. In the various accounts of the American Indian tribes references to formal adoption and incorporation of one people by another are abundant. It is natural that formal adoption as a definite institution was most in vogue wherever the clan and gentile systems were more or less fully developed.


Hodge, Frederick Webb, Compiler. The Handbook of American Indians North of Mexico. Bureau of American Ethnology, Government Printing Office. 1906.

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4 thoughts on “Native American Adoption”

  1. trying to find out what my Great-Great Grandmother’s Native name before she was adopted, I have a delayed birth certificate, but the foster family changed her name and her race. It states she was born in Virginia on the Cherokee Reservation. I need help trying to locate records on her so I can get my Native American Dawes finished.

    1. I too am trying this find information on my great great grandmother who orally is believed to have been 100% Cherokee but shows ‘white’ on documents and is believed to have been adopted. At one point the census just says ‘baby girl’ with no name further adding to the belief that this was the case. She was raised in Fairfax, VA. Is there anyway I could access adoption records? Thanks

      1. Adoption records in Virginia only go back to 1942. Since she is your gr-gr-grandmother, I expect she was adopted long before then, especially, since she is listed on a census (pre 1940). Having a young child in the family named “baby girl” or “baby boy” is not that unusual, and is more reflective on the fact that the census taker probably never spoke with a family member, or, as was more common in past times, the family had yet to name the child.

      2. I am in the same situation. My great grandmother is said to have been a full blooded Cherokee Indian. Supposedly she was adopted by a white family and her name was changed. The only census I have found show her as an adult with spouse and/or children. I haven’t found anything of her as a child. Nothing showing her parents name. How do you break that barrier. If I knew who the parents were or what her name was prior to adoption it would help.

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