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Conversation with Denise Altvater on Truth and Reconciliation in Maine

The following are excerpts from a recent conversation with Denise Altvater, AFSC’s Wabanaki Program Coordinator in Maine.  Keith Harvey, AFSC’s regional director in New England, hosted the telephone conversation, and several friends and supporters joined the call.

 Keith: Denise, would you introduce yourself and your work?

 Denise: I live on the Passamaquoddy Reservation in Maine, and I’ve worked with AFSC for 18 years.  In 2000, I was contacted by the Muskie School of Public Service and was asked if I’d be willing to tell my story.  They were developing a video to help train state DHHS workers about complying with the Indian Child Welfare Act.

 I talked about how when we were little, state workers came onto the reservation.  My five sisters and I were home.  My mother was not home.  They took all of our belongings and they put them in garbage bags.  They herded us into station wagons and drove us away for a long, long time.  I was seven years old at the time. 

 They took us to a state foster home in the Old Town area and left us there for four years.  During those four years, our foster parents sexually assaulted us.  They starved us.  They did some horrific things to us.

 After I told my story, I started going to meetings with tribal child welfare workers and the Muskie School and state DHHS workers.  Within a month, we had trained over 500 state workers on complying with the Indian Child Welfare Act. 

 I continued to work with the group for many, many years.  After seven or eight years, we developed this really strong bond and relationship with each other. It was at that point we decided that we cared enough about each other, and we cared enough about the work, that we were willing to take the next step. 

 For us, the next step was to go back and take an honest look at Maine’s history and what they did to Native people.  Because what they did was a purposeful act to take Native children and put them in white homes in order to strip them of their language and their culture.  It was a well meaning effort that they thought would help us survive in the greater society, but of course that’s not what happened.

 And even though we knew that what had happened could not be undone, we believed that if we did it in a meaningful way, and not a superficial way but a real meaningful way, we could move forward to a place of love and forgiveness.

 So we embarked on this truth and reconciliation process.  It is the first truth and reconciliation 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. 

 We have three goals.  The first is to uncover the truth and experiences of Wabanaki people and what happened to them in the system.  The second is for the Truth Commission to make recommendations for structural changes that will improve the way Wabanaki children and families are treated in the future.  The most important and final goal is to give Wabanaki people a place where their voices will be heard, a place where they can heal, where they can be believed. 

 I believe it also will help to undo the racism and oppression that allowed this to happen in the first place, and it will help us to understand and deal with why it happened, how it happened, and in what ways the trauma that has been passed down generationally still impacts all of us today. 

 We have a convening group that for the last two and a half years has planned this process.  I am a member of that group.  We developed a declaration of intent.  It was signed this last May by the governor of Maine, the five tribal chiefs and myself. 

 We’ve developed community groups in all five Wabanaki communities.  We’ve had trainings for them on the Williams Bridges Transitional Framework.  It’s a way of helping people understand how to move from change and loss through a process, so that you can emerge into a place of hope and forgiveness and healing.  We’ve also trained them on implementing peace and healing circles in our own communities.  This is a really important part of this process.

 We’re in the process of developing our mandate, and our mandate will tell the Truth Commission exactly what they are being asked to do, an outline for them.  And then they will start doing their research and going into the communities and hearing testimony, and start to put together their own record of what happened and what needs to happen.

 But I just can’t emphasize enough that the important piece of this work for myself and for others of us is the healing for Wabanaki people.  It’s time.  It’s time for us to start healing from some of the historical policies and the historical traumas that the government has imposed upon us and the ways in which they have tried to eliminate us and assimilate us, and to take control of our lives and our communities, and that’s exactly what we’re doing with this process.

 Keith:  Thank you Denise.  I want to ask, is this similar in other states with Native communities in the states?

 Denise:  No. There are other states that are doing some truth and reconciliation work but none of it is around Native communities and what’s happened to Native people.  And none of it also is a government to government reconciliation. 

 We are archiving all of the work that we do so that this can be duplicated in other communities across the country, too, because what I’m talking about isn’t ancient history.  What I’m talking about still goes on today.  There are still states that do not follow the Indian Child Welfare Act.  There are still states that are removing children because they think it’s in their best interest that they do not have their culture and their language.  So this is still something that is being done all across the country. 

 Caller:  Is there any way non-Native people can participate in a voluntary way in this process?

 Denise:  Absolutely.  For us, it’s important that the larger state of Maine be involved in this process, that they be educated, that they be a part of all this, because it’s not only healing for Wabanaki people.  It’s also healing for people in the state.  It’s also healing for the state workers who had to implement the policies of the government and do the work that they had to do.

 We’ve already talked about ways in which people can help us get the word out, maybe ask us to speak to different groups and explain what we’re doing, maybe help with fundraising and other things like that.   There is absolutely a place for everybody who wants to help.

 Keith:  You’ve done a lot of trainings.  Some of those trainings are anti-racism trainings.  How has that gone?

 Denise:  Very well.  I’ve done them in universities, I’ve done them with prison guards.  Where I live in Washington County, it’s really difficult for our kids to transition from the reservation schools, where they go to eighth grade, into the high schools.  So lately a lot of the work I’ve been doing is anti-racism work with young people.

 Caller: …Restorative justice seems to connect with truth and reconciliation work.

 Denise:  Yes it does, it’s very closely connected.  And sometimes people ask me, what about reparations for what has happened? 

 Our focus is on the healing and on getting the system changed and making sure that the families and the children have the best possible treatment and the best possible care that they can.  There isn’t any amount of money in the world that will give me back the dignity they took from me when I was a child, but this process is doing that, it’s already doing that. 

 Caller: Would you say a little about the conference you were just at in Detroit?

 Denise: I went to a Race to Equity conference in Detroit where they just seated their Truth Commission.  They have one of the most segregated areas in Detroit in the whole world.  They had an international panel, so I was actually able to sit on a panel with Naomi Tutu, which was exciting for me.  It was a great experience.

 We’re hoping that when we are finally ready to seat our commission, we will be able to do it in a way that is very visible and very public, so that people across the state will be able to really see what we’re doing.  This takes a lot of courage and it takes a lot of strength on the part of both the state and the tribes, so it really needs to be celebrated in a big way.

 Keith: You invited me up when the convening group presented to one of the tribal councils.  Tell the story of what happened in the presentation.

 Denise:  We were in front of tribal leaders, and we were explaining the process we were going through.  And as we started talking about what we were doing, the tribal leaders who were in the room started talking about their own stories and things that had happened to them. 

 It was very powerful, and it was a real learning moment.   People are really hungry to be able to tell their stories.  That’s happened more than one time, in more than one place.  And that’s what’s happening with the community circles and the healing circles that we’ve started. 

 Caller:  Two of my ancestors were killed by Indians….I realize this isn’t exactly the efforts that you’re going through with your program…but I thought maybe you would know of a way I could find out more about my family’s history and your people. 

 Denise:  But it is the effort.  All of this is the effort.  This process that we’re going through is to do exactly that, to open the doors to other things and other efforts and other hurts and other traumas and other places where reconciliation can happen. …I can most definitely help you connect with people and see.

 This is part of what I do for my job, but more importantly, this is part of getting back our humanity.  This is part of just looking at each other with love and compassion and understanding and listening to each other no matter what the stories are, no matter what the hurts are, and paying attention and believing each other and trying to find out what the truth is. 

 I talk about this as my work, but I’m raising my eight year old grandson.  And I look at my grandson, and I think to myself, I cannot comprehend somebody coming to my home, ripping him away from me, and taking him to a far-away place, where he will never see me for years, and where he could be harmed in many ways.

 That’s real.  That’s so real.  And I just want people to understand that this is a real human process that we’re going through.  That this is something that I think every one of us can really get in touch with, can really feel some emotions around and can really do some healing.  So yes, it is the work that you’re talking about, and it’s work that I’m willing to help you do, most definitely.

 Keith:  What is the timeline that you all have for yourselves?

 Denise: The Truth Commission should be seated in the spring of 2012.  There will be five commissioners.  Once the commission is seated, they will start doing some research through the state archives and putting together some of the history.  The testimony is going to be taken from not only those who were put into the homes, but their families: their parents, their siblings, their children, their grandchildren.  And it also means taking testimony from people in the state who have been affected by all of this. 

 After they do all of their work, they will produce a report, and we are in hopes that what we signed in our Declaration will happen, that the state and the tribes will abide by the recommendations that are in the report.   We’ve already gone two and a half years, and we’re looking at about another 3 year process.

 Caller:  Will there be opportunity for foster families to share their stories as well?

 Denise: Absolutely.  And that’s why it’s so important that this get out to the broader state of Maine.  Healing needs to happen with all of us.  It’s not isolated to Native people.  There are a lot of people and a lot of places that have been impacted and traumatized.  And we want to make sure that all of those voices and all of those stories get heard.

 Caller: What form will documentation take, do you imagine?  Written, taped, audio, photography?

 Denise:  All of that.  We are going to prepare the way in the communities for the Truth Commission to come and take testimony.  And people are going to have options.  Some will want to do it in public, some in private, some in writing, some may have other people tell their stories for them, some may record their story and allow their recording to be submitted. 

 Keith: You’ve told your story many, many times.  Seems like it’s hard, but it’s healing too?  Or is it just hard?

 Denise:  When I used to tell my story, I didn’t really have a lot of emotion, and I could just rattle it off.  Now when I tell my story, I am very well connected to what happened to me, to the feelings around it, and even more connected to how what happened to me has affected my family, my children and my grandchildren.  So it’s difficult.  And I cry, and I grieve.  And then I’m happy.  I smile, I laugh, I love, I can connect.  And the more and more I tell my story, the less and less it has control over my life. 

 We did worry, and we’ve talked about this in our community groups.  Do we want to do this?  Do we want our communities to be so re-traumatized that they start drinking, and drugging and being violent, and committing suicide?  And we came to the realization that that’s been happening for decades.  Our people have been dying.  Our people have been killing themselves.  Our people have been abusing substances.  Our people are really hurting.

 My own sister committed suicide two years ago, and I have to believe that if we had done this sooner, there may have, and maybe not, but there may have been a possibility that she might still be alive today. 

 So I’m no longer afraid of this process, I’m no longer afraid of our people being hurt any more than they’ve already been hurt.   I see this as an opportunity, amongst other opportunities that need to happen, that can provide a place for people to emerge as a whole person, to come through this in a way that they can feel love, joy, happiness.  Because many of us never knew what that was.  I never did.  And now that I know, I don’t ever want to go back.