Maine Truth Commission to Tell Story of Forced Assimilation of Wabanaki Children


February 12, 2013: The five commissioners of the Maine Truth and Reconciliation Commission are sworn in and officially seated in Hermon, Maine. (Hannah Dunphy/ICTJ)

Stolen child, stranger with no name. Her mouth has been sewn shut. The songs, on their long flight across Years upon years, birth upon death, have been lost.

- Excerpt from “Mother Tongue,” by Mihku Paul

On Tuesday, February 12, 2013, ICTJ representatives joined more than 200 people in central Maine for the official seating ceremony of the Maine Wabanaki-State Child Welfare Truth and Reconciliation Commission.

The day of ceremony, performances, and prayer officially launched the three-year process, which will look into the forced assimilation of Wabanaki children, as implemented by the state child welfare system.

Maine’s foster care system was intended to act in the best interest of all children. But for indigenous children removed from their communities and placed with white families, often without the consent of their parents or tribes, the foster care system caused the painful loss of their cultural identity and traumatic severing from their heritage.

These stories, once silenced, are about to be told.

After more than a decade of work headed by a group of indigenous women in Maine, the state has agreed to embark on a partnership with the Wabanaki peoples to investigate several decades of forced assimilation. The Maine Wabanaki-State Child Welfare Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) will hear the experiences of some of those impacted by state and federal welfare programs, and make recommendations for better practices.

“One of the most distinct aspects of this initiative is that there is no shame and blame,” said Chief Kirk Francis, of the Penobscot Indian Nation, “just people from the tribes and the state who are committed to making sure this never happens again.”

The commissioners of the TRC are both indigenous and non-indigenous and bring a variety of professional backgrounds to their work as commissioners: Secretary of State Matthew Dunlap; gkisedtanamoogk of the Wampanog tribe; Educator Carol Wishcamper; Dr. Gail Werrbach, director of the University of Maine School of Social Work; and Sandra White Hawk, member of the Lakota Sioux.

“There is no shame and blame, just people from the tribes and the state who are committed to making sure this never happens again.”
    The solemnity of the seating ceremony reflected the great trust and responsibility being endowed upon the commissioners. After the chiefs and leaders of Maine’s Wabanaki tribes expressed their hopes and blessing for the commission, the commissioners were sworn in under oath. The energetic indigenous youth group Maine United for Truth, Healing and Change offered a performance of poetry and song.

Denise Yarmal Altvater is a Passamaquoddy tribal member who was taken from her home at age seven. For her, the seating ceremony was one of great emotion. “What I need, money cannot give me,” she said in an interview with Maine’s WCSH. “My childhood, my humanity, my place in this world, my voice . . . but this can give me those things back.”

Image removed. Performance group Maine United for Truth, Healing and Change. (Hannah Dunphy/ICTJ)
Struggle for Indigenous Rights in Maine

The story of relations between the state and its indigenous inhabitants is long and tumultuous, rife with political struggle to impose authority over indigenous nations of Maine.

Seated in the northeastern corner of the United States, Maine is a large state rich with miles of uninhabited forests and majestic rocky coastlines. Wabanaki is an identity encompassing members of the Passamaquoddy, Penobscot, Maliseet, and Micmac tribes, with representation in the US northeast and Canada.

Today, there are approximately 8,000 tribal members in Maine. All that is left, the Wabanaki say, after years of state programs that forced assimilation of the youngest members of Wabanaki indigenous nations.

In the 1950s, the Indian Adoption Project removed Native American children from their families and tribes to be adopted by non-native families. Wabanaki children were taken from their homes, and in many cases, subjected to abuse.    
The story of relations between the state and its indigenous inhabitants is long and tumultuous, rife with political struggle to impose authority over indigenous nations of Maine.

Maine significantly lagged behind the US in recognizing the rights of indigenous nations. Only in 1967 did it allow them the right to vote in state elections, the last US state to recognize such rights.

It was also the federal government that first recognized the sovereign rights of Wabanaki tribes. In 1975, the Passamaquoddy and the Penobscot initiated litigation for a land claim, Passamaquoddy v. Morton, in which the Passamaquoddy Tribe and Penobscot Indian Nation won federal recognition. It has been identified as a landmark decision for indigenous land rights, and among the most complex litigation ever brought before US federal courts.

The Maine Indian Claims Settlement Act of 1980 affirmed the sovereign recognition secured five years earlier. However, the terms of the agreement limited tribal sovereignty and authority compared to the degree of autonomy enjoyed by most other federally recognized tribes.

Image removed. Commissioners greet audience members. (Hannah Dunphy/ICTJ)

A Chance for Maine to Heal

In 1978, the US Congress passed the Indian Child Welfare Act, which called for increased protection of the rights of indigenous families and children. In an effort to assess the welfare services of Maine, the Maine Office of Child and Family Services and Wabanaki tribal-child welfare programs began a dialogue.

What they found was overwhelming distrust and dysfunction.

According to Esther Attean and Jill Williams, “Tribal members doubted the state’s commitment to the Child Welfare Act, and state agency folks grappled with their desire to make changes while know that they were members of the dominant group responsible for historical oppression. As tribal child-welfare workers, we felt like we were hitting an invisible wall.”

The group set out to find a way to not only expose the reality of an inadequate welfare system, but to start real reconciliation for all involved.

In 2011, Maine Governor Paul LePage joined tribal chiefs of the Maliseet, Micmac, Passamaquoddy, and Penobscot tribes to establish the Truth and Reconciliation Commission.

Those in the field of transitional justice and global projects of truth and memory have identified the Maine initiative as particularly unique.

“As tribal child-welfare workers, we felt like we were hitting an invisible wall.”
    Whereas a typical truth commission operates with aspirations towards national or state political cohesion, the Maine commission operates with full recognition of the sovereignty of the indigenous Wabanaki nations.

The resulting “nation-to-nation” truth-seeking is a new model that practitioners have noted with keen interest.

The spiritual, non-judicial elements of the process are also charting new territory. “This is not a truth commission in the classic model of a process heavily marked by working with archives and producing books,” said Eduardo Gonzalez, director of ICTJ’s Truth and Memory program. “This commission is based on the actual living memory of people, in ceremonies that give meaning to the experiences of people. It is very focused on orality and performance.”

The TRC hopes that the Wabanaki will be given the chance to heal from the harm inflicted on them, and that the state and Mainers in general will be able to recognize their responsibility for past abuses or reconcile any inherited guilt for practices of the past.

Gonzalez explains that the TRC could affect a wider set of political and social relations in the state, which, according to the 2012 US Census is 95.4% Caucasian, the highest of any state in the US.

“The TRC is addressing one specific issue—treatment of indigenous children by the child welfare institutions,” said ICTJ’s Eduardo Gonzalez. “But it's also trying to throw light over issues of marginalization, and discrimination, to cast some light on race relations in the state of Maine.”

Image removed. Dusk at the Morgan Hill Event Center in Hermon, ME, after the seating ceremony concludes. (Hannah Dunphy/ICTJ)

As Maine and the Wabanaki peoples embark on this process, ICTJ will stay engaged with the leadership of the TRC initiative and continue to provide assistance to the TRC through our Truth and Memory program. ICTJ’s engagement with the Maine TRC is one of several ways ICTJ is working to provide assistance to indigenous groups engaging with transitional justice measures.