A Jewish Woman Discovers Her Roots

Looking for Lost Bird: A Jewish Woman Discovers Her Roots
By Yvette Melanson with Claire Safran
Avon Books, New York, 1999
Reviewed by Rebekah Shardy

A wise woman I know once observed we often discover who we are by first learning who we are not. The journey from innocence to self-discovery, however, is neither straight nor smooth. An intriguing road map of one woman 's trek is found in "Looking for Lost Bird: A Jewish Woman Discovers Her Roots." At 43 years of age, author Yvette Melanson is unexpectedly gifted with a new family and cultural identity. "I used to be white. I used to be Jewish. I used to be rich. And as anyone can tell from my speech, I used to be from New York. " A fateful Internet search revealed she was taken from her mother on a Navajo reservation and adopted by a suburban couple.

The term "Lost Bird" is used by Native Americans for missing children. It originated with the name given by a Cavalry officer to his adopted Lakota baby, a lone survivor of Wounded Knee. Following this sad precedent, social workers and missionaries have often taken children from their reservation homes to place them in distant boarding schools or orphanages.

Yvette and her natural family's sense of loss and anger never overshadow their wonder at the miracle of finding each other. Her natural father, a Dineh (Navajo) medicine man, predicted her return. An aunt shows her where her umbilical cord had been buried so that "you would always come back to this place." Yvette marvels at the grace and wisdom of this new culture's ancient traditions. She exults in the Navajo celebration of a baby's first spontaneous laugh: "After all the new and strange things I was struggling to understand, here was something that I grasped immediately. A baby is a great joy, and its laughter is a true blessing from whatever holy spirit you believe in."

Consistent with the Navajo value of balanced opposites, "Looking for Lost Bird" presents both sides of Yvette's experience. She writes frankly of her discomfort with the Navajo's brusque treatment of domestic animals, the perplexing activities of community 'witches' and the racist contempt hurled at her Anglo husband and 'half-breed' children on the reservation by its residents.

Racism is not the only similarity found between white and native cultures, Yvette observes. Both Judaic and Navajo belief systems recognize a special bond with ancestral land and emphasize personal ethics without the prospect of heaven or hell. Both prefer a personal relationship with the community, so necessary to survival, to one with a supernatural savior.

An authentically personal story, "Looking for Lost Bird" gives the reader a window seat on a provocative ride through terrain that covers kidnapping, the search for birth parents, cultural prejudice, the grim reality of reservation life and the richness of Navajo spirituality. Written with clarity and poignancy, it will appeal to all who have longed at one time or another to find the people or place where, as the Dineh would say, "the wind knows your name."

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