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Adoptee claims both his Indian and white cultures

By Virginia de Leon

Through faith, love and music, Shane Ridley-Stevens brings two worlds together.

Shane Ridley-Stevens and his daughter, Ne'Hovia.

Adopted the day after he was born, Shane has become known for teaching others about his Native American culture even though he grew up in a white family and predominantly white community.

He was one of just a few people of color in his hometown, Hayden, Idaho. 

The fact he didn’t look like other members of his family made little difference to those who knew him, he said, especially to members of his faith community, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (LDS).

“I was one of the six Stevens children,” said Shane, expressing that he didn’t feel he experienced discrimination.

Still, he wondered about his birth parents. He knew from the caseworker who handled his adoption that both were Indian.  His mother was Shoshone, and his father was a member of the Washoe Paiute Tribe. 

He longed to learn more about his Native American culture.

“Be proud of who you are,” his adoptive parents often told him.

“It was sometimes hard to be proud of who I was, because most movies I saw showed the Indians as the bad guys,” Shane said, recalling his childhood.

When he was 19 years old, Shane experienced Native culture for the first time.

For his mission, the LDS Church sent Shane to the island village of Bella Bella on the central coast of British Columbia. For five months, he lived among the Heiltsuk, one of the Canadian First Nations, known for their music, dancing and ties to the land.

The experience was daunting at first.

“I was scared,” he said, because even though he’s Indian, he grew up white.

The people of Bella Bella embraced him and treated him like one of their own.  The Heiltsuk people taught him their traditions and history.  They also immersed him in their culture, showing him how to sing, play drum and dance in the name of the Creator.

While there, Shane found a mentor.   Moses Humchitt, a Heiltsuk elder, who was in his late 70s, agreed to teach him.

One day, Moses handed him a piece of paper and said: “This is a schedule for your classes.”

He told Shane, “You may never find out who you belong to, so you will be taught our ways.”

The experience at the village transformed Shane. For the first time, he discovered a part of himself that he never knew existed.

“Growing up, I always felt there was this big hole inside of me,” he said. “When I started learning from the elders, the hole became smaller and smaller. I felt like I was becoming complete.”

When he finished his mission, Shane returned to North Idaho determined to find his birth family and learn more about his Indian roots.

With the blessing of his adoptive parents, he talked to the attorney who handled his adoption and did some investigative work.

 A year later, he was in Elko, Nev., knocking on the door of his birth mother’s home.

“I knew in my heart she was my mom,” said Shane, who had spoken to Barbara Ridley on the phone several times before visiting her.

The two hugged immediately when they saw each other for the first time. Then, without missing a beat, Barbara told Shane to help her brother take a battery out of the car.

“It was like coming home from a long vacation,” Shane recalled with a laugh.

His birth mother and adoptive parents, Laura and Larry Stevens, have become friends.  They talk on the phone and exchange Christmas cards every year.  Barbara and Laura even swap recipes.

Last summer, members of both families gathered in Coeur d’Alene to watch Shane dance at the annual Julyamsh Powwow, a major Northwest powwow.

The alliance between the families also is reflected in Shane’s hyphenated last name: Ridley-Stevens.

After discovering Native culture and reuniting with his birth mother 18 years ago, Shane started expressing his Indian side that had been dormant.

He sought knowledge from elders of area tribes.  He learned their stories.  He danced and drummed at powwows.

In 1990, during a powwow at Fort Hall, the Indian reservation of the Shoshone and Bannock people in southeastern Idaho, Shane picked up a flute for the first time.

The instrument, carved by hand out of alder wood, immediately caught his eye because a small woodpecker had been whittled near the mouthpiece.

Shane had no money, so he gave the man selling the flute an eagle feather in exchange.

When he played it, a feeling of peace swept over Shane. Like the music he first heard in Bella Bella, the sounds from the flute were surprisingly familiar to him, as if they had been a part of him throughout his life.

When he travels, he takes the woodpecker flute and several others he has carved over the years.

When he’s not working at Home Depot, the Spokane Valley resident plays the flute and shares his traditions at school assemblies, festivals, college classes and other gatherings.

In addition to his performances, he works with small groups and talks with youth about living a drug- and alcohol-free life.

The way he integrates his LDS faith life with his Native American culture influences the lessons he teaches children and others.

“I see and I understand both worlds,” said Shane, who belongs to the 15th Ward in Spokane Valley. 

He finds the stories of Indian elders similar to Christian beliefs.

He also said that native traditions are similar to the LDS way of life, which promotes family, self-sufficiency, respect for elders, and care for the land and community.

“Even before Christianity came to Indian people, they lived a Christian life,” Shane said.  “They took care of each other.  An auntie or uncle is just as much as a mom and dad to a nephew or niece.”

Their lives are family-oriented, he said.

Shane and his wife, Michelle Luna, who has four children from her previous marriage, now have a six-month-old daughter, Ne’Hovia. 

Her name means “my song” in the Shoshone language.

For information, call 496-5181.

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