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Native American Stories about Adoptive Families

Adoption was a very important part of traditional society in nearly every Native American tribe. Because of the highly structured clan system in most Native American societies, it was rare for an orphaned child to be left without a family-- usually there were very clear clan rules about who inherited the responsibility for a child whose parents had died. It was not even considered "adoption" in most tribes for a child to be taken in by a maternal uncle or another relative or clan member.

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However, intertribal adoption was an important part of Native American tribal life. In most North American tribes, prisoners of war (particularly women and children, but sometimes even defeated warriors) were regularly adopted by their captors, usually by a childless couple or a couple who had recently lost a child. This custom was so prevalent that honorary ritual adoptions of youths from other tribes became part of peace treaties and intertribal friendship ceremonies in many tribes-- a tradition that continued after colonization, to the fascination and occasional confusion of white recipients of this honor. In some South American tribes, intertribal adoptions even became an accepted means of exogamy (finding a spouse from outside one's birth community.) Two families from different tribes would formally trade children, who would then be able to marry into the extended family of their new parents once they grew up but would have the advantage of already knowing their language and customs.

In most Native American cultures, it was considered a major moral principle that outsiders adopted into the tribe must be treated as true kin. For this reason there are many Native American myths and legends about adoption, particularly about the punishment of people who mistreat their adopted relatives and about adopted children who become successful leaders of their tribes. The adoption of humans by animals or supernatural beings is also a common motif of Native American mythology.

Adoption Stories From Different Tribes

*Mooin, the Bear's Child:
    Micmac legend of a boy adopted by a bear family after his stepfather abandoned him.
*Crow Necklace And His Medicine Ceremony:
    Interesting story of a warrior's conflicting loyalties between his birth family and his adopted family.
    Oral history from a Cree elder about the devotion of an adopted grandchild.
*Legend of the Bear Family:
    Penobscot Indian legend about a boy adopted by bears, whose descendants became the Bear Clan.

Recommended Books of Related Native American Legends

The Polar Bear Son:
    Charming picture book based on an Inuit legend about a woman who adopts a bear cub.

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