Re: Native American adoption/Kingsolver "Pigs in Heaven"

Dr A.L. Canessa (alec@LIVERPOOL.AC.UK)
Tue, 12 Jul 1994 09:49:12 +0100

In the last mail Eugenia Shanklin said:
> Question: any anthropologists out there who have read Barbara
> Kingsolver's novel, Pigs in Heaven, and have a different view of the
> question of adoption of Native American children? The novel ends well
> but raises a number of real questions that are not so easily resolved.
> I've been trying to imagine some different endings.
> A fellow Africanist/anthropologist was once asked, quite
> seriously, to take home a child so that the child would have the benefits
> of an American education; her response (which I thought wise) was, "If I
> take the child, I will raise him as an American child, not as an African,
> and he will be lost to you, to his people. Is that what you want?" The
> parents are still undecided, the child is still in Africa where he is
> safe, well-fed and loved, but I think the question may not be so simple.
> Any thoughts?
> Eugenia Shanklin
> Professor, Anthropology
> Trenton State College
I am not familiar with the novel but I too was put in a similar situation at the
end of my fieldwork in Bolivia. The family I had lived with for over two years
asked me to take their child, who was not yet three, back with me to Europe.
To begin with, the argument that the child will be 'lost to his people'
is surely neither here nor there. The parents have decided that for whatever
reason they would rather the child be brought up elsewhere. More relevant is
the question of taking the child out of its culture. If this were the only
problem it would be easily resolved: Europe and North America consist of multi-
cultural and multi-racial societies. A Bolivian or African child would not be
as exotic as they once would have been and would grow up as many other children
of non-European origin in these countries.
The real difficulty arises in examining the motives of the parents. Do
they simply wnat to be got rid of the child? Do they genuinely want the child
to grow up in a better environment? Do they want the child to get rich in a
foreign country and send them money? In my particular case, I think the
parent were motivated by a combination of these but above all, they were
entranced at the possibility of a small Aymara girl becoming European and
wealthy. It is the Cinderella story.
You also have to consider how this child would feel twenty years down
the line with knowledge that her parents had given her up and that she was
born into a totally different culture and language. No number of Bolivian
artefacts on the wall would dispel this unease. And here there is a difference
between being being born in Europe of non-European parents or brought by
them to Europe or even being adopted at birth by European parents.
And finally, I am not sure I have any business adopting Aymara children
when they have parents, even poor ones, who are able to take care of them. It
is not a solution to world poverty and at worst could distract us from tackling
the deep-rooted economic and political problems that beset countries such as
Well, these are my thoughts on the matter. Personally I am not
impressed by their coherence so I look forward to further comments on this
Andrew Canessa