Denise Altvater serves as coordinator as AFSC's Wabanaki Youth Program in Maine. She has created a supportive web of connection and communication in a region where Native communities have been isolated and abused. With her leadership, the AFSC's Wabanaki Program (Maine) was instrumental in developing the first Truth and Reconciliation commission between a sovereign tribal nation and a U.S. state, and she has recently focused on offering decolonization workshops for faith communities. Christina Elcock and Lucy Duncan talked with Denise to explore the importance of decolonization and why it’s vital to heal from the cracks and abuses of a dehumanizing system.
Lucy: There are two things I want to explore with you. One, as you’ve said, the impact of colonialism and racism lives within people of color (POC) every day. Well, it lives within white people too, although a lot of it is beneficial, right? The impacts are wealth and the freedom of movement and a lot of freedom of choice. It sends the message that white lives matter and I've been thinking about that a lot: What does it mean to have a life that you and other people acknowledge matters?
But there's this other cost which is the dehumanization of everybody involved and the dehumanization of the perpetrator. In that moment that you described with the man who was moved to tears by your stories, I heard a transformation in him: he was becoming human again. I think that in the process of colonization, white people lose their hearts, and the question becomes: how do we get our hearts back? You also mentioned how you talk about healing in your workshops. What do you say when you talk about what healing means for you?
Denise: What healing means to me?
Denise: I was in a group with people of faith who have this big belief that healing means that you have to forgive. This was really predominant in this group, but I don't believe that. I don't believe that I have to forgive in order to heal because if that's not something that I'm ready to do then all I’m doing is giving that perpetrator or that dominant group a way out by getting them off the hook while I still suffer.
I have a picture that was taken when we did the Truth and Reconciliation at the Hall of Flags. Esther Attean (Co-Director at Maine-Wabanaki REACH) and I were doing the presentation – she always preseents with me because I get really emotional – she's kind of like my rock. The place was full and all the tribes were there as were all kinds of T.V. stations. But this woman from the back of the room stood up and she said: "I was a state worker back in the 50s about the time when you were taken from your home. I'm asking for your forgiveness.” I didn't know what to say and so I didn't say anything and she sat down.
Because I am a very loving and caring person, I feel like I need to make people O.K., and so I immediately and instinctively started making my way toward the back of the room. My husband and other people were there as I was trying to get to the back of the room and there was a woman who wanted me to go out back and do an interview with her, but I'm trying to get past her to get to this woman. When I get there, I put my hand on her head and I looked at her and we both started crying. We kind of had our foreheads together and somebody took a picture of us like that.
It was actually Robert Shetterly, the one who did my portrait, he took the picture. Robert and other people have a copy of that picture, and in fact a woman who was doing a radio show about forgiveness contacted me two months ago. Robert had given her a copy of that picture, and she wanted to interview me about forgiveness based on that photograph. So, I started thinking about it and I told her I wasn’t sure if I can do that. I said I wasn’t quite sure of what that photo means to me. With that said, I did the radio show and I spoke about the photo. I took the photo to the workshop with me as my visual for what healing means to me because I'd been since thinking about it. What I told them was the story of this woman and her asking me for forgiveness. I told them what I did and the result of what I did. Referring to the picture of her and I together with tears, I said, “To me, this is a healing moment, this is what healing looks like, but this is not forgiveness.”
I did not forgive her because it's not up to me to forgive her for one thing, I don't know her, I have nothing within me that tells me that I need to forgive her for anything. People have just assumed that this is a picture of forgiveness and not a picture of healing. There are many things that I have healed over, things like rape and torture. I've healed over those things, but many of the people that did those things to me I have never had to forgive them in order to heal.
For me, what healing looks like is my soul no longer has this wound bearing down disrupting my life. Healing is how I raise my grandchildren as compared to how I raised my children. Because that wound was there when I raised my children and I took it out on them. Once it healed, once I was able to let it go, once I was able to talk about it, look at it and get through it, past it, rid of it, my grandson was not an inheritor of that wound. That wound is not disrupting my grandson's life the way it disrupted my children's life.