North Star Journey: ‘Where do I belong?’ Native roots, hard realities surface in woman’s search for her past

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Over decades, thousands of Native American children in Minnesota have been separated from relatives, adopted by white families, often growing up with no knowledge of their identity and culture. As part of our North Star Journey series, MPR’s Dan Gunderson shares the path one family is traveling to discover and understand a new identity.


2023 MNSPJ Page One Award, third place in Coverage - Enterprise/In-depth Reporting category

2023 National Headliner Award, second place in Feature or Human Interest Story category


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SPEAKER: Over decades, thousands of Native American children in Minnesota have been separated from relatives, adopted by white families, often growing up with no knowledge of their identity and culture. As part of our North Star Journey series, Dan Gundersen shares the path one family is traveling to discover and understand a new identity.

DAN GUNDERSEN: The day Peggy Mandel listened to a voicemail from her half sister marked the end of one journey and the beginning of another.

PEGGY MANDEL: She said, "I am pleasantly surprised. I'm shocked."

ANITA FINEDAY: I was shocked. I mean, I had no idea that I had a sister. I'd always wanted a sister.

DAN GUNDERSEN: That's Anita Fineday on learning she was no longer an only child. Fineday, a former tribal judge for the White Earth Nation, has a long career of advocating for adopted native children. Suddenly, it was very personal. She confronted her mother.

ANITA FINEDAY: Mom, guess who contacted me? [LAUGHS] And she immediately spilled the beans.

DAN GUNDERSEN: Her birth mother did not respond when Peggy Mandel tried to contact her several months earlier, but Anita Fineday arranged a meeting, and a friend recorded the moment.

ANITA FINEDAY: So, mom, this is Peggy.


ELEANOR ROBERTSON: Nice to meet you. And I'm so glad that you've done well and been well taken care of. Don't cry, you'll make me cry.

PEGGY MANDEL: And I wanted just to thank you. It's been an amazing life.


DAN GUNDERSEN: Mandel had an elevator speech ready for the meeting. But when she stood in front of her birth mother, emotions overwhelmed her.

PEGGY MANDEL: I sobbed from a place I don't think I've ever sobbed from before, just like a floodgate opened.

DAN GUNDERSEN: That meeting was in 2015. Eleanor Robertson, now in her 90s, has dementia. So NPR did not interview her. But Mandel says they had time to share family stories and make an uneasy connection. Anita Fineday says she struggled to understand her mother's decision.

ANITA FINEDAY: She didn't ever tell me that I had a sister. And YOU think about that, and it's just kind of mind blowing how someone could keep that from you for 50 years, but she did.

DAN GUNDERSEN: The reasons are complicated, but rooted in the painful history of Indigenous people in the US. Fineday grew up in Kentucky, and her mother discouraged connections to her Ojibwe relatives in Minnesota.

ANITA FINEDAY: My mom, she didn't tell people she was Native American or Indian because she was ashamed.

DAN GUNDERSEN: Fineday says that shame was a result of US government policy that aimed to split families and sever connections to Native culture and language. She recalls a moment as a child when she repeated an Ojibwe word to her grandmother who had spent time as a child in a government boarding school.

ANITA FINEDAY: And she said, "Oh, no, my girl, you don't want to learn those words." And she showed me her hands where she had scars on her knuckles. She said, that's where the nuns hit me when I spoke Ojibwe. So she said, speaking Ojibwe will only get you in trouble.

DAN GUNDERSEN: Raised in a Jewish family in the Twin Cities, Peggy Mandel always suspected there was a missing piece to her history. Now she needed to understand her newly discovered native identity.

PEGGY MANDEL: It is a lot to wrap my head around. Sometimes it's heavy how many cultures can I belong to that have been displaced so much and that have experienced so much trauma.

DAN GUNDERSEN: Reconciling a new identity is also challenging for Mandel's daughters Aleeza and Margo. They were teenagers When they learned about their native heritage. Last year, they gathered with their aunt Anita at the Stearns History Museum in Saint Cloud to see tangible evidence of that heritage.

ANITA FINEDAY: This looks like that bag that I have.

DAN GUNDERSEN: It's the first time Anita Fineday has seen a recently discovered trove of her great grandmother's things held for years in the museum collection.

ANITA FINEDAY: I might get really emotional. I've heard my mom talk about this stuff my whole life. We just thought it was all gone. What do you guys think?

DAN GUNDERSEN: Fineday turns to her nieces, and Aleeza Mandel says touching things made by her ancestors hands is surprisingly emotional.

ALEEZA MANDEL: I can feel the energy. I can feel her spirit. So it feels like a stranger, but also a stranger that I know is within me.

DAN GUNDERSEN: As they strive to understand their new identity, the sisters are in different places on that journey partly shaped by their life experiences. Margo is fair skinned and blonde, likely thanks to her northern European genes. Aleeza has dark, curly hair and darker skin that caused people to question her heritage.

ALEEZA MANDEL: People would look at me and say, what are you? They would really say those words. I would also get Latina or Hispanic descent, Middle Eastern. I always was like, why are people asking me that? Because I thought that I was just one thing.

DAN GUNDERSEN: Aleeza Mandel has immersed herself in Ojibwe culture seeking out the guidance of elders, being invited to ceremonies, being gifted an eagle feather and a pipe, both powerful sacred items. Margo was taking a more academic approach studying the history of Indigenous people and the cultural and spiritual genocide that's now part of her history.

MARGO MANDEL: Personally, it's been a little hard for me to be able to not feel like included, but connect at a deeper level because I don't really look like everybody else.

DAN GUNDERSEN: You didn't get the questions about--


DAN GUNDERSEN: --where are you from?

MARGO MANDEL: Not at all.

DAN GUNDERSEN: When we explore this journey more deeply in a later conversation, Margo says she has been struck by the overlap of her Jewish and Native identities.

MARGO MANDEL: White settlers and colonizers did everything in their power to essentially exterminate this culture. And I think it's very interesting how there are some similarities with that to the Jewish culture as well, both facing forms of extermination.

DAN GUNDERSEN: Aleeza has felt rage as she contemplates the struggles of her ancestors, and it fuels her drive to become who she is and explore her culture in a respectful way.

ALEEZA MANDEL: A huge motivational piece for me to continue to learn is the fact that we weren't supposed to be here, like somebody else did not want us to be here. So I transcend that anger into motivation to continue to learn.

DAN GUNDERSEN: Aleeza and Margo both say they are comfortable exploring their identities at a pace that feels right for them. After all, it will be a life-long exploration. Peggy Mandel and Anita Fineday are also adjusting to the life altering discovery of a new family. Fineday says, she's let go of the anger she felt toward her mother for keeping her from her sister for so many years

ANITA FINEDAY: I'm just focusing on building a relationship. And not only do I have a sister, I have a brother-in-law, and I have two fabulous nieces.

DAN GUNDERSEN: Peggy Mandel says she never gave up, and the result has been more than she hoped for.

PEGGY MANDEL: It's astounding to me how open the heart can be when you're willing and ready and even scared. And I was scared. Oh, for sure, I was scared.

DAN GUNDERSEN: Peggy and Anita attended an annual powwow that's held in the Twin Cities for Native American adoptees. Peggy says it was affirming to meet other people who understand what she is experiencing.

PEGGY MANDEL: The very end of this beautiful ceremony, we all hugged each other. We didn't know each other from Adam. But what it felt like is, hey, guess what? We all matter. And that was an incredibly powerful experience for me.

DAN GUNDERSEN: Mandel hopes telling her story will encourage others to persist in the quest to find the missing pieces of their lives. Dan Gunderson, MPR News, Moorhead.

SPEAKER: And this story was made possible in part by the Minnesota Legacy Amendments Arts and Cultural Heritage Fund.

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