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Blood ties triumph

Florida woman is kin to Sarah Simon

Northern News Services

Yellowknife (Nov 19/01) - When Sarah Simon died Nov. 2, people gathered to share their stories of the past. Perhaps none was more incredible than the story of her great-granddaughter, Ruth Shaw, who was taken from the family almost forty years ago to live with a missionary family.

Her family in Fort McPherson knows her as Dolly, a nickname she's had since infancy. To them, the name Dolly is still a reminder of heartbreak that happened long ago.

Shaw was born to the Itsi family 40 years ago. Her mother was just 18, and still finishing school, so her grandmother took the infant and entrusted her to an American missionary couple who were living in the community.

Itsi's grandmother, Doris Itsi, had intended to take the baby back after a few months. Instead, the missionaries kept her, and spirited her away to Minnesota where they raised her themselves.

Not long after she was taken, her uncle, Johnny Itsi, travelled to Minnesota to try to get her back. Shaw remembers when he came to the door. She was three years old, and her adoptive parents told her to hide in the basement. She was afraid.

When Johnny came home empty-handed, he declared that no child should be called Dolly in Fort McPherson ever again.

Under the care of her adoptive parents, Harriet and Larry Simmons, Shaw says she had an unhappy childhood. The Simmons divorced shortly after they stole her away, and Shaw went to live with her mother. When she was in Grade 7, problems at home led her to move in with her abusive father. She knew very little about her past.

Her father told her that her birth family was full of drunkards, they didn't want her, and that her birth mother had died in a bar room brawl.

Shaw wouldn't learn the truth until she was 26, when she contacted her natural grandmother for the first time. "After that, I just kept on getting phone calls from people who said, 'I'm your sister' and 'I'm your brother.'"

Although she spent all of her adult life estranged from her adoptive parents, Shaw suddenly belonged to a family once again.

In 1995, one of her sisters, Marlene Snowshoe, arranged for Shaw and her family to come to Fort McPherson to visit. "We went up, and we were treated very well," Shaw says. "They had a feast for us, and it seemed we were related to everybody except for, like, the Mounties. Cousins and aunts and just the whole town, and people from different towns came in. Going back, it just seemed like I fit in."

Since that first visit, Shaw has returned to the Mackenzie Delta two more times. The last time was for a family reunion in August.

Shaw still wonders what her life might have been like if she hadn't been taken away. In Minnesota, she left her father's home when she was 16, dropped out of high school, and met her husband Dale, whom she travelled with across the United States. The couple started their family young, and eventually moving to Florida, where Dale now has a lawn-maintenance business. The couple have three daughters, aged 21, 19 and 10, and a two-year-old grandson.

Her youngest and eldest daughters get culture shock coming back to visit their Gwich'in relatives in Fort McPherson. But Shaw says her middle daughter the trips. One of the biggest changes for the family to get used to was the country food. "We grew up with McDonald's and Burger King. There, you look in the freezer there and there's just a caribou head sitting there -- that's a little bit different. "

It was on her first visit back to Fort McPherson that Shaw met her great-grandmother Sarah Simon, who helped her reclaim part of her past. "She told me stories about my mother, nice stories compared to the ones I heard all my life."

Shaw never met her birth mother, Maria Snowshoe, who drowned in the Peel River in 1969. There are still many missing pieces in Shaw's family history.

"When people hear I'm coming up, a lot of them will call me and say 'I've got a lot to tell you.' I guess I look a lot like my mother and when they see me, they break down crying and they forget what they were going to tell me," Shaw says.

With Simon's death this month, Shaw says it's like a part of her past is gone. "It was like the closing of the story book -- the ending."