September 9, 1999
The Lost Bird
A Native American's journey beyond her Jewish home
Yvette Melanson is a woman who might say the Sh'ma before going to sleep, and in the morning light whisper the Navajo prayer, "May I walk happily and lightly on the earth." Both are deeply felt, authentic expressions of her soul. As she explains, "I know that I'm Jewish. I feel Jewish. I've been raised Jewish. I'm also Navajo."
Her book, "Looking for Lost Bird: A Jewish Woman Discovers Her Navajo Roots," written with Claire Safran (Avon), chronicles her extraordinary life journey. At 43, after facing many sad upheavals but persisting in embracing life, Melanson, who had been adopted by a Jewish family as a young child, learns shocking details about her identity: She was born in a lean-to on a Navajo reservation, stolen from her parents at birth along with her twin brother and passed through a net of underground doctors, nurses and orphanage officials, moved frequently, until she reached her adoptive family in Queens. "Lost bird" is the name that Native Americans give to their lost children, and Melanson asserts that hundreds of thousands of Navajo children were stolen, from the 1920s to the 1970s. Her family never stopped looking for her.
At a time when many memoirs are being published, this one stands out for the astonishing true story it unfolds, written with an open heart. The narrative moves forward and back in time, describing Melanson's early life with Bea and Larry Silverman, the years after she left their Neponsit home, her experiences among her newly found relatives on the Arizona reservation. Interwoven with her well-told anecdotes are Navajo teachings. One proverb that particularly speaks to Melanson: "Walk in harmony with the universe by being aware of who you are."
Praised and pampered by the Silvermans, the fair-skinned, green-eyed Melanson grew up in an upper middle-class world of piano lessons and art classes, repeatedly reminded that her parents chose her because she was so special. In her early teens, the protective cocoon was burst when Bea died; Larry remarried a woman who cast her new stepdaughter out of their home. Melanson lived with neighborhood friends until Larry and his wife offered to send her to Israel. There, she lived on Kibbutz Sa'ar in the northern Galilee and flourished, learning Hebrew, falling in love and marrying a fellow kibbutznik. During the Yom Kippur War, she was wounded and her new bridegroom was killed. Larry convinced her to return to America. Although she thought she would return to Israel, she never did.
Still unwelcome in the Silverman home, she joined the U.S. Navy, distinguishing herself for her work. She married a Naval officer who proved to be violent, and she then divorced. When she gave birth, the Silvermans insisted that she give the boy up for adoption, but she resisted, raising Brad with the help of a friend's family. She later married Dickie Melanson, who had six children, and together they had two daughters, carving out a life in Maine.
Like many adoptees, she never ceased to wonder about her birth family, and began to use the Internet to investigate her background. After her initial correspondence with a woman representing the Navajo family (they had no computer on the reservation), she was skeptical that she, with her fair complexion, could be a Native American. The possibility seemed too unbelievable. But the details of their stories seemed to match, and in a close perusal of the Silvermans' papers (Larry had died), she found the names Betty Jackson and Yazzie Monroe -- the Navajo parents she would come to claim as her own. When Yazzie, a Navajo medicine man, saw her photograph, he knew it was his daughter. Betty had died eight years earlier of esophageal cancer --
the same disease Melanson had suffered from. At the invitation of the Navajo nation and trailed by a pack of reporters, Melanson visited the family in Tolani Lake and received a warm welcome as though she were coming home. Although among Navajos, it is considered impolite to stare, she couldn't help looking long into the eyes of her brothers and sisters, "drinking in the look of my family, looking for little resemblances between them and me." She found many similarities. In an interview, she notes, "It was very uncanny the way I slid into this family. I usually hold back. But they thought just the way I did, acted the way I did. It shouldn't have been -- we were raised totally different. But it was just like putting on a kid glove."
Melanson, her husband and two young daughters then moved to the reservation, eager to get to know their family and to learn the Navajo ways. She also sought to know her mother, and found the woman in the stories people told, by walking in her steps and by learning to weave rugs, as she had done. The Melansons participate in their clan's rituals and learn about Navajo spirituality and healing, the necessary harmony between body and spirit.
One aunt shows Melanson the exact place where her umbilical chord had been buried. "For Navajos," she writes, "it's very important to know where that place is. They believe that if you don't know where your umbilical cord is buried, then you may be fated to spend all of your life searching for it." Although life on the reservation is difficult, the experience is a rich one. Ultimately, she finds her twin brother, who had been adopted by a Catholic family, and they are reunited on the reservation.
Melanson, 46, now splits her time between Tolani Lake and her home in Newport, Maine, where her husband is able to get better medical care than in Arizona. In Maine, they support themselves by selling produce along the side of a major road, and she also weaves rugs according to traditional patterns and sells Navajo crafts through a Web site. In a telephone conversation from Maine, the Queens layer of her story is still very evident in her voice.
Comfortable as both a Navajo and a Jew, Melanson continues to celebrate Passover in her home, and her daughters also are confident with their dual Jewish and Navajo identities. She points out several connections between Jewish and Navajo cultures, from dietary restrictions and laws about slaughtering animals to respect for elders and for the land. Reflecting on the circle as a sacred shape for the Navajos, she recalls a conversation with her grandmother about the symbolism of the circle at Jewish weddings, representing the eternal cycle of life. For Melanson, living on a reservation is similar to her experience of living on a kibbutz, with its communal sense of purpose and caring for one another.
Her daughters, now 13 and 14, adore their new grandfather, and they all speak the Navajo language with him. Melanson now understands that her firstborn son's hyperactivity is common in their family. And, she has learned that she also had some white ancestors, which explains her complexion. When asked about the Silvermans and how much they might have know about her background, she is convinced that Bea didn't know she was a lost bird.
In the last pages of the book, she writes: "I had gone searching for my family, but I had found myself. I was discovering a new harmony. As a white woman, I had beaten my head against stone walls and broken my heart trying to change what couldn't be changed. Now I was learning the great Navajo secret -- how to live in the world as it is, how to adapt, how to bend in the wind so as not to break.
"I was learning what to leave behind, and what to keep with me forever. I was following a new road of life, but in the Navajo way, it ran parallel to my old Moses road. I was still a woman who looked in the rearview mirror, but I had found the switch that clicked the view from day to night, from now to then, from the glare of pursuing headlights, always there, always following, to a clearer vision."