In the spring of 2011 the chiefs of the Wabanaki nations and the governor of Maine signed a Declaration of Intent to Create a Maine/Wabanaki Truth & Reconciliation Process to investigate and document a child welfare system that once saw Indian children forcibly removed from their families and placed mostly with white foster parents that were often negligent and sometimes brutally abusive. By the end of this year, the Maine Tribal-State Child Welfare Truth & Reconciliation Commission (TRC) – the first of its kind established in the country – will begin hearing people’s stories to help heal the wounds from that traumatic past.
The Wabanaki nations are the Houlton Band of Maliseet Indians, the Aroostook Band of Micmacs, the Passamaquoddy Tribe at Indian Township, the Passamaquoddy Tribe at Pleasant Point, and the Penobscot Indian Nation at Indian Island. Children from all of the nations – now grown up with children and sometimes grandchildren of their own – were affected by Maine’s child welfare system.
The TRC process is moving forward thoughtfully and carefully. “We’re still talking about how to talk about it,” said Heather Martin, the TRC’s executive director. “There’s really a lot of groundwork to lay and one of the things we’re really clear about is we’re not interested in going into a community our way; we really want to hear from the community how they want the TRC to come to them. There are definitely baseline practices with a TRC, but we’re not interested in saying the TRC will be there on Tuesday so you can come and tell your story. We’re really interested in developing partnerships so we’re not anticipating hearing formal testimony until November.”
Truth and reconciliation commissions have been established in various places around the world, most notably in South Africa, to deal with the violence and human rights abuses that occurred under the Apartheid system. The idea is to work through acknowledgment of the wrong doings toward healing and reconciliation, institutional reform, and sometimes reparations. In Maine the idea is to create a common understanding between the Wabanaki and the state of Maine about what happened to Indian children in the welfare system; to use the information from the TRC process to improve the system; and to promote healing both among Wabanaki children and their families and the people who administered the abusive system.
Martin said one of the challenges is getting everyone on the same page – or in some cases getting people to realize there’s a page to get on. Everyone knew what the issue was in South Africa and what needed to be discussed, but “here where we’re talking about a violation of human rights of indigenous people especially in relation to child care one half of the conversation is unaware that a conversation needs to happen – and that’s the white community. They don’t know that this is an issue and a lot of time when it’s brought to their attention it’s met with incredulity.” Martin said. “On the other hand is the Wabanaki community that’s very aware that what went on is not okay so the conversation there is how do we talk about this and what do we need to keep ourselves safe emotionally as we go forward and what happens when we take the lid off and start telling?”
Martin, whose background includes human ecology, political science and community organizing, has been seeking allies in the communities in churches and other groups and has garnered the support of the Maine Humanities Council and the Abbe Museum. ”I can tell you that since April I’ve put 12,000 miles on my car,” she said.
The TRC, whose mandate expires in May 2015, will be guided by Wabanaki Reach, a new incarnation of the original Truth & Reconciliation Convening Group that formed in the late 1990s to help the state come comply with federal standards of child care. “Reach not only helps advise the TRC but is responsible for getting our communities ready for the commission to come and for the truth telling stage,” said Esther Attean, a community organizer with the University of Southern Maine’s Muskie School of Public Service. Preparing the community includes ceremony and healing circles and whatever helps build relationships and trust, Attean said. “It’s a sacred process to have people express that grief that they feel,” Attean said.
There are still many details to be worked out including decisions about what will be archived and what won’t. “Not everything will be archived by the TRC. Some things will be imprinted in their hearts and on their minds,” Attean said. She said she thinks the healing has already started. “The first time they put voice to their grief you can just see the change in people, you can see some of the burden lifted. We’ve suffered so much under oppression and we’ve passed it on through the generations and it’s going to take a while to undo it but I think it’s already happening,” she said. “We can do it. We can turn this around.”