Danegeld: Severing Adoptees From Their Cultures

A thousand years ago, my Celtic ancestors were routinely attacked, often violently, by their Viking neighbors. England enacted a tax upon its citizens, called Danegeld, to finance protection from these sea-borne invaders.

I think about this sometimes because I am a modern-day Celt captured by Vikings. My adopted father, the attorney who sealed my adoption records and lied about my origins, was profoundly proud of his Scandinavian roots. He was half Swedish and half Danish, the son of first-generation immigrants. When I was growing up we had books about Scandinavia littering the entire house. In fact he was appointed honorary counsel to Denmark for our tiny little corner of the Midwest, and was even knighted by the Danish monarchy for his contributions to his culture. We went to Denmark for the ceremony, and although I didn’t participate in it, I recall my adoptive mother being very keen to try to set me up with the Danish prince. (No, REALLY. She was, shall we say, kinda wacky.) My childhood was spent listening to my adoptive father expound upon his heritage while he was simultaneously, and unbeknownst to me, denying me mine. My Danegeld was paid in the stripping of my Celtic roots. What an ironic repetition of history.

There are tons of great books, articles and blogs from transracial adoptees out there, which I enjoy reading because they enhance my understanding of my own adoption experience. I especially like Harlow’s Monkey, John Raible’s and Yoon Seon’s blogs, Gang Shik’s over at the Korean Adoptee Nexus, and the fantastic book “Outsiders Within: Writing On Transracial Adoption” by Jane Jeong Trenka, Julia Chinyere Oparah and Sun Yung Shin. I wonder, how does being severed from our cultures affect adoptees in the long term? What can be done to preserve the heritage of adoptees?

Because being “American” or “whatever your adoptive family is” isn’t enough. Our transracial adoptee friends have their heritage stamped across their faces, which too often causes them grief they don’t deserve. I have an idea what that’s like because I was the only adoptee in our neighborhood, so I was often held up as the prime example of adoptees or, more accurately, bastards. (As in, “this is our adopted daughter,” emphasis on the adjective, or “look, there’s that weird adopted kid,” as if the two automatically go hand-in-hand.) Some adoptees return to their roots by learning the language and traditions of their missing culture, or even moving back to their countries of origin. Check out GOAL’s Homecoming program. Kickass!

For adoptees like me, who were adopted into families of similar race, it’s a simple matter to deny that we have any culture at all, to assume that we can be assimilated at whim. But we are also stripped of our cultural roots, as distant as those roots might be. I think cultural roots run far deeper than most people want to believe. You can’t just take a Irish lass like me and dump me in with a bunch of Vikings and expect it to magically work out. We still KNOW, to the core of our being, that we are out of place… even if we’re not supposed to.

For example, as a teen I became strongly interested in everything Irish, although I had no way to know I was actually exploring my own heritage. This interest was severely curtailed by my adoptive parents. The more I became interested, the less they liked it. In retrospect I hope it shook my adoptive father to his balding Danish pate, the fact that I somehow knew I was Irish despite never having been told. And he definitely knew because, as I later discovered, it was one of the things he wrote down from the initial conversation with his good ol’ buddy the delivery doctor. Admittedly, our rocky relationship was due to more than just culture clash, but I have to wonder how my adoptive father could be so proud of his own heritage while actively hindering my attempts to know mine. (My adoptive mother was Irish, actually, as well as English and Welsh. She seemed to have little interest in her own heritage and certainly none in mine.)

Why are my cultural roots considered less valid because I’m adopted? Why is it okay to pursue genealogy unless you’re adopted, in which case you must be a psychopathic potential stalker? I think all adult adoptees deserve the full and complete truth of our origins. No one should ever have to pay the Danegeld of their cultural heritage.


  1. Triona,

    You have made EXCELLENT points in this post!

  2. http://maryanne says

    This is an interesting and beautiful piece, and I agree that ethnic heritage is real culture, even when the adoptive parents and child are of the same race.

  3. Thank you Triona! I was raised by a Jewish couple who coincidently mirrored my first mom and her husband in that my adad’s parents were from Hungary and my amom’s parents were from Belarus.

    My biodad – who knows. Momma’s not talking about him yet and my non-ID said he was Irish, or believed to be of Irish descent, or… I have his name, but little else, and the name is English, not Irish – perhaps he was mostly Irish? Most people with his last name have connections to North Carolina that go back to colonial days – so any English roots are WAAAY back. Still – it would be MY family tree.

    Of course, the original story from my amom’s sister was “both” my parents were Jewish which is probably what the agency told them.

    Interestingly, one of my half-brothers has an intense interest in all things Celtic – and he’s definitely Russian/Hungarian Jewish. My Polish-German husband too – just loves Ireland and Scotland. Something about the Celts I guess.

  4. Gaye, the Celts were all over, not just in Ireland. If you look up Celts on Wikipedia there’s a nice map showing the potential extent of their region, which includes parts of Germany, Poland and Hungary plus much of the rest of Europe. If my non-ID is to be believed I am Irish/German on my birth mom’s side and Polish on my birth dad’s, so I may have Celtic blood on both sides.

    I have heard that agencies sometimes claimed the children they adopted out were of the same descent as the adoptive families, to better market us (and make their profits). Unfortunately that leaves us adoptees bewildered when our inner instincts run counter to what we are told. I’ve found instinct to be more accurate.

  5. http://maryanne says

    Hey Triona,

    I’m Polish and Irish too, with a little Ukrainian maybe, but those borders shifted all the time.

    If you go back far enough, the Celts were all over Europe. The British Isles were their last stand when Germanic tribes pushed them out of the rest of Europe. But they went even further than that to the East.


    Check this out…ancient Celtic mummies in China! Someone took a big detour after a night at the pub:-)!

    My surrendered son is half Hungarian, half Polish/Irish but looks very slavic like me and his father.

  6. maryanne–cool link, thanks! It seems like the Celts ranged farther than anyone thought!