What Accidentally Discovering I Was Adopted Taught Me About Religious Freedom

09/25/2015 10:23 am ET Updated Sep 25, 2016

In the summer of 1998, only a month after I turned 20, I accidentally discovered that I was adopted. The experience threw me into an identity crisis. It also had the curious effect of teaching me about religious freedom as well as something about which, up until then, I, like many Americans, had never given any thought: the necessity of having an original birth certificate (OBC).

I grew up being told that I was Lakota, Italian, and Irish through my mother's ancestry, and my mother, wanting to protect me, never told me that I was adopted. After numerous traumas we faced--including witnessing my grandfather's death just days after saving my life and my step-father stalking us--my mother wanted me to have a normal life. So she told me I shared her ancestry, and kept my adoption a secret.

And so I grew up learning about and participating in my Lakota ways of life. I learned about things like smudging, the chanupa (sacred pipe), and the importance of eagle feathers in our spirituality. I also learned of a law making it illegal to have eagle feathers unless you're a member of a federally recognized tribe. Thus, if I wanted to use my feathers and participate in certain ceremonies, I would have to get enrolled in my tribe. After hearing about others being arrested for having feathers without being enrolled, the stakes were clear.

Different tribes, I learned, have different enrollment requirements. But one of the most common is being able to trace your ancestry to members of your tribe. Securing my religious freedom therefore meant tracing my family tree.

And so, in my first year of college, I began researching. My mother had given me her family records, showing my place in her family tree. But this gave my only half of what, I believed, was my ancestry. Getting in touch with my father, I hoped, would fill in the second half of the complex equation before me.

My father's whereabouts were unknown to me for many years, but, the summer after I turned twenty, we managed to reconnect. It felt as though I was finally complete, and that once I'd gotten his half of our family tree I'd finally be able to get enrolled. But then I returned to my university to find a letter from my father's parents. Through an off-hand remark they broke the news to me that I was, in fact, adopted. It was something they thought I already knew.

In the following months, I discovered that my family wasn't my biological family, and that I might not be Lakota by ancestry.

Suddenly I didn't know who or what I was. I had to find out.

I rushed to look through my identifying documents. I recognized the name on my driver's license and social security card, but it no longer felt like me. My birth certificate listed the names of the people I had always known as my biological parents--people to whom I knew now I wasn't biologically related. My identifying documents were a lie.

And then it hit me: If these documents were all part of an elaborate fiction, I couldn't trust that I was really Lakota. I might not be able to get enrolled. I could be arrested for having my feathers. The only way to know who I really was, and to secure my religious freedom, was to find the truth. I needed my original birth certificate, showing who my biological parents really were. Only that could tell me my whole story.

I contacted the agency that handled my adoption and discovered something I never imagined: that I didn't have the same rights as other U.S. citizens. Unlike others, being adopted meant that I could not access my OBC. I was prohibited, without a signed affidavit or court order, from knowing who and what I was.

My identity crisis would have to remain unresolved. My religious freedom would just have to wait. My heart screamed at the injustice of it all.

I asked the agency to do a search, and a year later I became one of the lucky ones. The agency found and contacted my birth mother. She gave them permission to share with me her name and address.

A couple months later, I met my birth mother for the first time, at the age of twenty two. Through her I learned that my biological father's whereabouts and ancestry may forever remain unknown and that I may never again be able to use my eagle feathers. But she brought with her my true original birth certificate, showing my original name and information for which so many adoptees continue to fight.

I never discovered whether I have or don't have Lakota ancestry, but the experience ultimately taught me a great deal. It taught me that ancestry can be important, but it doesn't always make us who we are. We are more than the sum of our DNA. It showed me that culture and ancestry are not synonymous, and that sometimes a person can be part of a culture even if their ancestry suggests another. It taught me that not everyone in the U.S. has religious freedom and that our First Amendment shouldn't be taken for granted. It also helped me discover who I really was, that culturally I am Lakota and always have been.

To be sure, my experiences are far from typical. Not everyone who discovers that they are adopted experiences an identity crisis. And not everyone's religious freedom rests on being able to trace their ancestry.

But such experiences demonstrate how important it can be for many adoptees to have access to their original birth certificates. They also illustrate why, as we turn to celebrate National Adoption Month and National Adoption Day in the coming weeks, we should pass legislation to support adoptee rights to OBCs nationwide. Our birth certificates have the power to help us discover who we really are.

And sometimes our fundamental needs and constitutional rights depend on it.

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DaShanne Stokes is an author, speaker, and commentator known for his work advancing civil rights and social justice. He recently completed a memoir about his experiences. An earlier version of this article appeared on DaShanne Stokes' blog.