Law | Opinion

Patricia Paul: Overcoming hardships and becoming a tribal judge

Patricia Paul. Photo from Facebook

Patricia Paul, a newly-appointed judge for the Confederated Tribes of Grand Ronde, shares her story of being adopted in Alaska:
What does it take to succeed in life when everyone, in your formative years, abandoned you? It takes determination, smarts and a bit of luck. My life began in January 1954 to a military father and an Inupiaq mother. My father, still living in Nashville, Tenn., fell in love with a single mother while stationed in Alaska and they married. My brother, Jimmy, and I were born, joining an older half-sister, Mary Jane. My mother, Elizabeth, lived the military life, traveling and raising her children. Then misfortune struck.

Our mom and her children had flown north to her hometown of Kotzebue, Alaska for a family birthday party. Shortly thereafter, we went to live in Fairbanks where our mother enjoyed a life on the town and left us three children alone. I pieced together bits of family history through discussions with our father, our mother, my older half-sister, and official communications on letterhead from the Territory of Alaska (prior to statehood).

I have counted among my “mothers” the Catholic Church, my sister Mary Jane and my brother, Jimmy. We were placed, for a time, in a Catholic orphanage in Fairbanksrun by the Sisters of Providence. We experienced the adoptions that were common prior to the Indian Child Welfare Act of 1978, and placed into non-native households; in our case, a Catholic family. My adopted family, Witkowski, was a blended family, and for the most part, nurturing, if a bit structured and stern. I graduated from Lathrop High School in 1972 in record time, half a semester ahead of most of my classmates.

In the early 1970s, Alaska was in the midst of tremendous change. When oil was discovered, a push to settle Alaska Native land claims changed our lives forever. Our birth mother had the foresight to enroll each of her children with the Bureau of Indian Affairs, and another paper trail emerged on my journey of discovery of my family roots. Our stepmother, Dorothy, received letters from the BIA in 1973. By September, my sister, brother and I had enrollment numbers in the Northwest Alaska Association of Kotzebue (which later changed to NANA Regional Corporation.)

Get the Story:
Patricia Paul: From Orphanage to Judge: The Fight to Overcome (Indian Country Today 3/30)

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