March 21, 1941.
Dear Rev. Mrs. Samuelson,
We are wondering if you might not be interested in a seven month old baby boy. He is of French, Scotch (black ink mars this portion of the letter) descent.
That baby is now 71 years old. Nearly 50 years on his quest to unravel the truth, he can fill in the scratched-out blank.
He is Justin Orr, former executive director of the Heart of America Indian Center in Kansas City.
And he is of the Snohomish and Cowlitz nations of the Pacific Northwest.
During virtually all of his adult life, Orr believed he was Native American; he had been told as much. But he didn’t have proof. That didn’t stop his dedication to native people; much of his career he worked on their behalf.
For a person of native blood, proving lineage is everything.
Anyone can claim native heritage. Every U.S. Census, many erroneously do.
“One of the oldest and nastiest insults in the Indian world is for someone to question that you aren’t really native,” Orr said. “I had a responsibility to make sure I was who I claimed. Had I not figured it out, it would have been devastating.”
Nearly 10 years ago, Orr was reorganizing the Kansas City Indian Center, virtually saving it from financial ruin. The center was located then on Admiral Boulevard. Orr had yet to orchestrate its move to 39th Street, a building the agency still occupies in Westport.
Orr had long known he was adopted. His older sister had slipped that bombshell in 1962 when he was 22 years old. She also had revealed that he was partly of native blood.
But about all the proof he had were the notes his adoptive father, a Harvard-educated Episcopalian minister, had scribbled on the back of an envelope. Something about the baby being Indian and a brief physical description of his biological father.
Respect for his adoptive parents, and his own busy life as a career federal employee and as a father, had long kept him from pursuing it much more.
And there was fear. He was worried and intrigued by the possibilities. Perhaps his story was among the many tragic efforts to “help” Native Americans. Would he find that he was one of the babies essentially stolen from their mothers? Sent away under the pretense of “schooling” or for “medical” checks when the infants were actually offered up for adoption to more “civilized” white families.
The practice was prevalent in the Northwest, where the New York-raised Orr knew his birth parents had lived. His adoptive parents lived for a short time in Bellingham, Wash., through his father’s work as a minister.
Orr’s initial fears have not materialized.
Agnes Burr/McKay/Jameson gave birth to him as the result of an out-of-wedlock relationship. She had been widowed two years before in 1938. Her husband died of tuberculosis, leaving her with five children.
Within a year of giving Orr up for adoption, she married Charles Jameson and had six more children, with one dying in infancy.
A jumble of paperwork reveals the secrets. It covers the kitchen table in the Lenexa home Orr shares with his daughter and 2 -year-old grandson. Birth certificates, death notices, obituaries, marriage certificates and applications for tribal recognition.
And now, pictures of his mother and his half siblings.
Unknown to Orr until recent months, his half brothers led a Huck Finn-like existence in the San Juan Islands of Washington.
While Orr practiced for violin recitals, lived in a spacious apartment in Gramercy Park in Manhattan and attended a prep school, they were climbing to the tips of fir trees and then roaming, tree to tree, high off the ground. They spent every day outside, swimming and rowing from one small island to the next, stuffing newspapers into the cracks of a rickety rowboat so it wouldn’t sink.
The story came together through archival detective work and a bit of serendipity.
A volunteer at the National Archives in Kansas City spent hours working with Orr, tracking down documents and retrieving the paperwork that outlined his mother’s life. Her first marriage license, a maiden name, and her death certificate led Orr to call an island library to get the obituary. He was encouraged to also check with the San Juan Historical Museum.
Jerry Jameson happened to walk into the museum office the next day. The director told him the news: an older half brother living in Kansas City.
“One of the things I’m most grateful for with Justin popping into our lives is it allows us to take a more serious look at our past as a family,” said Jerry Jameson, one of the two surviving half brothers who still lives in the area their mother never left, Friday Harbor.
The Jameson family had lived meagerly, often surviving off deer, rabbit, fish and clams gathered at low tide. The house did not have electricity or plumbing until the mid-1950s. And those improvements only followed the military death benefit when one son died.
“She was a warrior,” Jerry Jameson said of their mother. “She saved our life many times. It was about survival, just putting food on the table.”
Now that they have had long phone discussions with Orr, the brothers also have revealed that their mother grew to hate native people.
“She acted kind of ashamed of it,” recalled Orr’s other half brother, Charlie Jameson. “She never wanted to talk about it, just kept sweeping it under the rug.”
During the Depression, Agnes had applied for government benefits, seeking help for the family because she could prove lineage on a 1919 Indian roll. She was denied, although Orr isn’t sure why. Her second husband was also part native, with lineage tracing to Alaskan tribes.
“Here she is rejecting her native side, and I spent my life running full bore toward it,” Orr said. “It’s just how we move as human beings.”
Agnes died in 1994 at the age of 85, about six months after her second husband died.
None of her sons question their mother’s decisions.
In those days, being pregnant and unmarried was scandalous and not discussed. Her sister, an aunt the boys knew growing up, delivered Orr.
“Everyone went to their graves never saying a word,” Charlie Jameson said. “But once you accept the basic facts, it all just sort of falls into place.”
Older attitudes probably explain the scratched-out section of the letter from the Washington state children’s home that arranged the adoption. Orr assumes his adoptive mother did it.
She refused to discuss his adoption when he questioned her. Unable to bear her own children, she may have found the topic painful, he believes.
After her first marriage to the Rev. Samuelson ended in divorce, she remarried; Orr took the name of her second husband.
It was his third name. After the Bureau of Indian Affairs interceded on his behalf to get his original birth certificate unsealed, he found his birth name was Garry Philip McKay, after his mother’s first husband..
The document lists his birth father as Alan Hall, 34, from South Dakota. No city, just the occupation of “laborer.”
In April, the 1940 U.S. Census will be available online. The genealogist aiding Orr at the National Archives believes they will be able to find Hall in the unsealed records.
Orr also wants to locate two half sisters of his mother’s first marriage that he believes are still living.
But none of it feels as imperative as tracking the native blood of his mother.
“As with many adoptees, there is a vacant place in my heart, soul and being — and a need to complete who I am,” Orr wrote in his petition for help from the Bureau of Indian Affairs.
That spot is filled now, he said.
“I know who I am.”