The Hues and Textures of a Lived Life: Bitterroot Memoir Wins the Barbara Sudler Award

“If we close our eyes and listen to the stories and think about the hues and textures of a lived life, we grow to know the perspectives of others, which leads us to understand and, eventually, accept ourselves.”

—Susan Devan Harness, Bitterroot: A Salish Memoir of Transracial Adoption

A theme emerged in the reviews of this year’s winner of the Barbara Sudler Award: It’s a “hard to put down” page-turner that one reviewer read nearly all of in a day and finished the next morning.

Bitterroot: A Salish Memoir of Transracial Adoption (University of Nebraska Press, 2018) by Susan Devan Harness is a powerful, compelling, and deeply moving story. In her memoir, Harness (Confederated Salish Kootenai Tribes) shares her experiences as an American Indian child who was adopted by a white couple in the rural American West. She brings her readers with her as she searches for answers about who her biological family are and why she has always felt like an outsider looking in. As she learns about and grapples with her family relationships, the American Indian history of assimilation, and the concept of race, Harness discovers more about home, family, and self-acceptance.

History Colorado has presented the Barbara Sudler Award biennially since 1992. It was named in honor of Barbara Sudler Hornby, a past president of History Colorado (back when it was still the Colorado Historical Society) who maintained an active interest in historical issues and was an avid reader of western American literature. We give the award to outstanding works of nonfiction or fiction on a western American subject by a female author. The most important quality reviewers look for is wide potential readership and general interest. Other factors include the significance of the book to an understanding of the West and its people, the degree of creativity of thought, the degree of stylistic power, and the expertise demonstrated by the author.

This year marks the fifteenth round of the Sudler Awards. Previous winners have included Shirley Ann Wilson Moore, Rachel McLean Sailor, and Patricia Nelson Limerick.* (You can see the full list of previous winners here.) Book reviewers include volunteers and staff of History Colorado.

This round provided unique challenges and opportunities for our team, since reviews were set to begin just as our museums were closing due to the pandemic in March 2020. Our volunteers were no longer able to serve in their usual capacities. Following the best practices employed by libraries, we developed a system for the evaluators to safely read the books. More than twenty volunteers enthusiastically embraced the opportunity to participate. With masked faces and gloved hands, book pickups offered a very welcome opportunity to say hello to friendly faces.

Reviewers shared comments about Bitterroot that illustrated its importance and impact on readers. One wrote that “the author uses personal experience to tell the story of history and to bring about change. Emotionally powerful.” Another said it was “extremely compelling and powerful. I loved it and just flew through reading it. It is hard to put down and pulls on one’s emotions. Found myself in tears more than once.” In addition to its emotional impact, the substance in Bitterroot “comes from not only an intensely lived life and a bravery and beauty to recount it, but from Harness' master’s degree work about transracial adoption experiences by Native Americans. This book is a masterful blend of memoir forged through not just academic rigor but an empathetic connection with her research community—because within them was and still is her personal search for family roots.”

Photo of author Susan Harness. She is standing next to a road sign that reads "National Historic Trail" IDITAROD." She is smiling, and holding a beverage in a coffee takeout cup. She is wearing a zipped bright red outdoor jacket that has a hood attached, and a cross-body bag of some kind. She has short, salt-and-pepper colored hair with long bangs that hang to her eyebrows. In the distance behind her are tall, snow-capped mountains.

Author Susan Devan Harness

Photo by Rick Harness

Harness is also the author of Mixing Cultural Identities Through Transracial Adoption (Edwin Mellen Press, 2009), which she based on her cultural anthropology research. She received an M. A. in cultural anthropology and an M. A. in creative writing from Colorado State University. Bitterroot is the winner of two High Plains Book Awards in the categories of Indigenous Writer and Creative Nonfiction. It was also a finalist for the Colorado Book Awards.

You can find Bitterroot: A Salish Memoir of Transracial Adoption at most major booksellers and at the Center for Colorado Women’s History, or online from

*You can support History Colorado by purchasing books through our affiliate links at

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