Thrice Blessed [UPDATED]

Published 12:47pm Thursday, February 7, 2013 Updated 12:47pm Thursday, February 7, 2013

A Family Christmas Present

The day before Christmas many years ago, a South Dakota family welcomed a new baby into their midst. The Ulrich family – mom, dad, and three boys – gathered around to greet Carol, their six-week-old, black-haired, adopted baby girl.

Mrs. Ulrich, who had given birth to a baby girl who died, was overjoyed. The boys weren’t so sure. At 15-years old, the oldest said he thought Carol looked like a Mexican, the 13-year old hoped she wouldn’t get freckles like he had, and the 9-year old worried his parents wouldn’t love him anymore now that a new baby was in the family.

He needn’t have worried. This strong Christian family, active in the local Lutheran church and part of a big extended family, had plenty of love to go around. Before long, Carol was just part of the Ulrich family, the youngest of four siblings.


Carol Learns She’s Adopted

Just before entering first grade, Carol’s mother told her she was adopted. Many in the small community of Big Stone City knew of the adoption, and her mother didn’t want a schoolmate breaking the news.

The knowledge didn’t change Carol’s day-to-day life a bit, though. As part of this big, loving family, she went through school, made friends, and grew in stature and faith. The main difference between her family and her friend’s families was age. By the time Carol was in first grade her parents were already in their early 50s and her oldest brother away at war. By the time Carol graduated from high school, her parents were the age of many grandparents and her brothers were grown with families of their own.


Apparently Not Love at First Sight

First impressions almost derailed Carol’s future romance. One of Carol’s high school classmates introduced her to her brother, Gary Johnson, who had just gotten out of the Navy. When he was looking for someone to take on a sleigh ride, his sister suggested Carol. But Gary didn’t invite her because he didn’t like her hair, a poodle cut she sported in high school.

Fate drew the two together again, but now another obstacle arose – Gary was Catholic. Carol, raised in an active Lutheran family, informed him on their first date: “I will never marry a Catholic.” Gary joined the Lutheran church and soon they were married, having children, and building a satisfying life together.

Gary’s career as a mechanical contractor took them to Minot, ND for 10 years and then to Minneapolis for another 16. Thanks to his company’s generous travel policy, the two visited many countries during that time.

In 1986, Gary took early retirement and the two moved to Durango, Colorado. One could hardly call their time in Durango “retirement,” however: they built five homes, three churches and joined the Peace Corps in the Solomon Islands for a brief time.

After 10 years in Durango, they moved to a retirement community in Tucson, where they built life anew, developing close friendships and enjoying a busy life with other retirees. While there, Gary became director of Mission Builders of the ELCA, directing construction of churches across the country.

But then came another turning point: After 10 years, they felt the need to be closer to children. Eventually, they left Tucson and built a home on Heilberger Lake near Fergus Falls, within driving distance of their children. Counterintuitive as it may seem, Carol and Gary enjoy Minnesota’s four seasons and slow pace. Carol laughs and says, “We had to leave Tucson, because our social life was going to kill us.”

Second Blessing

At 40, Carol’s life was full and satisfying, but she began to think about health and medical history. Carol’s adoptive parents told her she was part German and French, but nothing more. She decided to learn more about her birth parents.

By this time, her adoptive mother was in a nursing home with dementia, so Carol’ sister-in-law suggested she go to Lutheran Social Services. It took a while, but eventually she received a thick file. Unfortunately, it didn’t contain what she was looking for – adoptive services didn’t take medical history back when

she was adopted.

Carol had come this far, so decided to take the next step. Still, it was with trepidation that Carol, by arrangement with Lutheran Social Services, wrote her birth mother to ask if she could stop for visit on a trip they were taking to Colorado. So it was on her 46th birthday that Carol met her birth mother.

Her mother was polite, but not overly enthusiastic about the reunion, and preferred to stay in the background. Still, Carol learned that her birth mother had been 18 years old, 100% German, and her mother’s father had owned a general store on a reservation in South Dakota.

But what about her birth father? Lutheran Social Services once more intervened, locating him in Oregon. He wrote back when he received Carol’s letter, but wasn’t so sure she was his daughter. He asked for DNA testing.

Carol was happy to make the arrangements although it required DNA drawn from herself, her mother, and her father – all within a 24-hour period. Given the distances over which they lived, the task was not easy, but she succeeded. And what did the tests show? She was indeed his daughter, and thus on her father’s side, she was a quarter Sioux and French. Her father was a member of the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe, a reservation in North and South Dakota.

So when she was 50, Carol met her birth father, discovered she had two half-brothers and two half-sisters, and she became a member of the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe. Her father had told her if DNA testing showed she was his daughter, he would give her jewelry as an inheritance. True to his word, he gave her beautiful silver and turquoise jewelry he had crafted, which she wears proudly to this day. Upon retiring from the railroad, he had become an outstanding silver smith.

The Story Doesn’t End There

Surely, discovering oneself part Sioux in middle age would be enough for anyone, but Carol was to learn something even more surprising about her heritage: her great, great grandmother, Nellie Two Bear Gates, was daughter of Chief Two Bears.

Two Bears was one of the prominent chiefs of the Upper Yanktonais, whose hunting territory ranged from the eastern Dakota Territory to the Missouri River. Two Bears served on the council at Fort Rice and later signed the Treaty of Fort Laramie of 1868, eventually settling on Standing Rock Reservation.

Nellie Two Bear Gates made four beautiful beaded valises, one of which became a wedding gift to grandfather, J. A. Archambault in 1907, the first white man to be enrolled on Standing Rock Indian reservation. Today, one of her valises is on display at the Smithsonian Museum.


Pieces Fall into Place

Once Carol learned about her birth heritage, she began to make sense of certain aspects of her life. At six weeks old, Carol had jet black hair. Carol laughs and says her and Gary’s three boys looked like “little papooses” at birth too. She learned her adopted father had some Native American blood. Given her “mixed blood,” she likely would not have been adopted if Mr. Ulrich with a similar background hadn’t come along.

Remember Carol’s announcement that she would never marry a Catholic? Turns out, her birth father and mother were Catholic. After she found this out, she joked to Gary: “Guess what – you are married to a Catholic Indian maiden.”

Joking aside, Carol is proud of her Native American heritage and equally thankful for her adoptive family. Add to that her life with Gary, three children and five grandchildren, and she feels she has truly been thrice blessed.


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