Denise Altvater serves as Coordinator as the 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 American Friends Service Committee'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 recently has become focused on offering decolonization workshops for faith communities. Christina Elcock and Lucy Duncan open up a conversation with Denise to explore the importance of decolonization and why it’s vital in order to heal from the cracks and abuses of a dehumanizing system.
Christina Elcock: As you know, Lucy and I wanted to explore the theme of decolonization with you, particularly around the work that you do as Wabanaki Program Coordinator. Now, the holiday period is approaching and I'm interested to hear from you, what is your take on Thanksgiving?
Denise Altvater: Well, you know, I really don't focus so much on Thanksgiving myself. We usually have seafood just because of the significance of having a turkey (an American tradition started by colonists). I think last year my husband and grandson and I went out to dinner in a restaurant, but we're the minority in the community as far as that goes. A lot of Wabanaki people still celebrate Thanksgiving.
Lucy Duncan: Wow – really? Interesting. What would you want European-Americans to think about on Thanksgiving?
Denise Altvater: For me, I want people to focus generally everyday about this stuff [decolonization practices], every single day, and to work on it. I know that there are things like Columbus Day and Thanksgiving Day that are a good time and opportunity to have people focus on what decolonization means and how to turn around how colonization has really destroyed so many things. But, I really have become broader in my thinking than that because it just is such a daily thing for me now that when these days come up for me, it's just another day to practice this “every single moment” thing. It isn't any different than how I want it to be on those other days. Do you know what I mean?
Lucy Duncan: Yeah. So, what is that every single moment thing? It seems that it's both a spiritual practice and a practice of mind. What is it like for you?
Denise Altvater: Well, in my program, the core work that I do includes decolonization, racism, and looking at colonization altogether. For me, decolonization is a framework for transforming the domination of Christianity. For me, colonization is a shift of the different parts of time. Colonization becomes parts of institutions, illegal frameworks, social services, economic structures, and all those things require social change. They act against us, the framework of oppression. So, when I work, I really have to acknowledge that racism on the individual level and colonization on the systematic level are really intertwined, they’re locked in place with each other. Anti-racism efforts are not successful if they're not paired with decolonization practices. I used to do anti-racism work for a long, long time without doing decolonization work. I now find that it's more effective and powerful when they pair with doing work around decolonization.
Lucy Duncan: What does that look like? How would you describe the different aspects of doing anti-racism work and decolonization work, specifically?
Denise Altvater: Well, all people of color (POC) live with the effects of both institutional and individual racism daily. The attention in the past several decades has been on individual racism, but, it's the institutional racism that specifically excludes POC by adopting policies that result in our exclusion that is much more devastating. So, when we go and we work around racism and decolonization we, (meaning white people from here on) have to reconcile what the dominant society has done and the fact that people exist on the territory of Native people. The person with the decolonized mind can accept the past and love their present and create their future regardless of what stands in their way. As long as they understand that all of these systems are in place to devalue and eliminate all of these groups of people and they accept that, they can reconcile that within themselves, move forward and really make huge changes. We present the truth and ask that the people in our workshops accept the truth. When they do that, we can begin to move forward toward decolonizing hearts, minds, and hopefully eventually, the land.
Lucy Duncan: What are the things that they need to accept?
Denise Altvater: What we do in our workshops, first of all, is have them really acknowledge the full truth of what the past is and so we talk about the past. We do it through a video, we also do a timeline of the Doctrine of Discovery (a Catholic law that dehumanized Native and Black people and justified genocide, manifest destiny, and the colonization of the world) and this is really important when we do the workshop for people of faith. They're not the only workshops that I do, but when we do the workshops with people of faith, especially faith leaders, it's important to put up that Doctrine of Discovery. It’s really important for them to really understand the truth of the past and to embrace that truth – the full truth. As well as the truth of the present, which is tied to the past.
They have to acknowledge that what happened in the past is a continuum of what is going on today. They need to commit to create a just future while facing a whole bunch of obstacles. They need to let go of their guilt and instead deal with their feelings of grief and anger because that grief and anger is a response to centuries of genocides and white domination. For some groups this is harder to deal with and accept. In a recent workshop, the group that focused on the past were incredible and made up 20 people who were all faith leaders. We had a Catholic priest there, we had a rabbi, we had Unitarian Universalists, we had two Quakers. We just had an array of different faith leaders there, and they probably were really progressive and open because we had full disclosure of what kind of workshop they were coming to. They were probably well informed even before they came to the workshop. So, when we talked about and showed videos about the genocide and the white domination, they didn't close up. They were very open to the information.
We helped them to recognize and acknowledge their own white privilege and helped them to be accountable for what happened and what is happening currently and how the different churches are accountable for what happened. When we get to that piece – which takes a lot of hard, difficult work, particularly with me being in the room – it changes the dynamic. But we are always clear with the group about me being in the room. I am not there for them to feel guilty, I am not there for them to be the one that they need to apologize to. I do not need anybody’s apologies. I am also not there to answer everybody’s questions. I am there because I also work on being decolonized. I think we all need a little bit of decolonization. In the workshop, we show the videos and talk about what's in place, what has happened, what harm has been done and how we need to turn complacency into resistance and how we need to live in balance with creation and not continue to take and do further harm to the earth. The message is we need to do all of these things from our hearts, from love, from compassion. We need to challenge ourselves, we need to challenge our beliefs, we need to call on our faith and our goodness.