Denise Altvater (far right)and siblings weeks before they were taken from the reservation and placed in a non-native foster home by the state of Maine.Photo: AFSC
“It is the first truth and reconciliation (process) in this country that is dealing with the child welfare system in the United States. It’s also the first truth and reconciliation between a government of the United States and a sovereign tribal nation. And as far as we know, because we’ve done work with the Transitional Justice Center in New York City, it is also the first that‘s been developed collaboratively between two opposing parties.” ~Denise Altvater
When Denise Altvater first told her story more than ten years ago, she couldn’t possibly have known all that would unfold as a result.
For decades, children across the country were routinely wrenched from their families and stripped of their identities in state-sanctioned efforts to assimilate Native children by placing them in foster care. Many experienced terrible abuse. Denise was one of those children.
The traumas experienced by Denise and so many others are still felt by whole generations of people – the generations that were taken, their parents and siblings, and most importantly, their children and grandchildren, who keenly feel the widespread effects of unresolved trauma in their families and communities.
Although the Indian Child Welfare Act of 1978 made some headway in stopping the practice, there are still places where state workers believe that Native children are better off being removed from their homes and being placed with white families.
That’s why Denise, who coordinates AFSC’s Wabanaki Program in Maine, was first asked to share her story, over a decade ago. Her story was videotaped, along with others, as part of an effort to help state workers in Maine understand the significance of the Indian Child Welfare Act.
Denise helped train over 500 state workers. And then she experienced a period of deep depression. She had told her story, but she didn’t have the supports that she needed to cope with the post traumatic stress it invoked.
Now, after many years of close collaboration with child welfare workers, Denise has helped open the way for a truth and reconciliation process in Maine. It was officially launched last May, when a declaration of intent was signed by representatives of the five Wabanaki tribes, Denise, and the governor of Maine.
This truth and reconciliation is historic. It has attracted national and international attention. It has the potential to transform lives, child welfare policies, and whole communities. It is already serving as a model for others. And it requires extraordinary preparation.
AFSC’s Wabanaki program is at the heart of efforts to ensure that when the Truth Commission is seated this spring and begins to take testimony, people are ready. Not just ready to share their stories, but ready to get all of the help and support they need to heal through the experience.
The root causes of violence and injustice must be addressed if people are to be at peace, as AFSC has learned in so many contexts around the world. From changes in public policy to the transformation of individual lives, this truth and reconciliation will provide opportunities to do just that.
Last month, members of each Wabanaki community received training to help them understand how to move from change and loss to a place of hope, forgiveness and healing. Those who have received training are, in turn, implementing peace and healing circles in each of their own communities. Training and support will be ongoing over the coming year. State workers are making similar preparations to put supports in place for those from the child welfare and foster care system who will be giving testimony.
“People are really hungry to tell their stories,” says Denise. Thanks to the preparation underway this winter, they will also have opportunities to heal.