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Facing the past, changing the future in Maine

(From left) Martha Proulx from Maine DHHS, Denise Altvater, Director of the Wabanaki Program, Jennifer Rooks, Maine Watch, Esther Attean, Maine TRC and Muskie School of Public Service, and Amy Greulich, Intern with Maine TRC pose after filming of the Maine Watch Program about the Maine TRC. Photo: Amy Greulich / AFSC

There is no easy way to tell this story.

Hundreds of small children were taken from their homes, their families, and the only life they knew.  They were driven far away, left with total strangers, and forced to assume new identities.  What happened next was different for every child.  Some were horrifically tortured.  Others were placed with loving families. 

But the trauma for all was in the taking.         

As late as 1984, Maine had one of the highest rates of removal of native children in the country.  Decades after the federally sponsored Indian Adoption Project tried (and failed) to prove that native children would be better off raised by white families, the idea persisted.  It persisted in the beliefs of child welfare workers, and it persisted in rates of removal that far outpaced those of the general population. 

On June 29, 2012, the Wabanaki tribes and the state of Maine did something that cannot change the past but will certainly change the future.

Five Wabanaki chiefs and the governor of Maine signed a mandate for a truth and reconciliation process that will unfold over the next few years.  It is the nation’s first truth and reconciliation process dealing with the child welfare system. It is also the first between a government of the United States and a sovereign tribal nation.

How did the state of Maine and the Wabanaki people come to this historic moment?  Through the courage of native people willing to share their stories to make a difference for their children and grandchildren.  And through the courage of state workers who listened to those stories and were willing to face the hard truths they revealed.  What started twelve years ago with a group of state workers working with survivors of the foster care system to make a training video on the Indian Child Welfare Act has transformed into  something extraordinary – a unified effort to discover the truth, change for the better, and heal.  

A declaration of intent was signed between the state and the tribes last spring.  The American Friends Service Committee and many others have been working for over a year to put supports in place for those who will share their stories.  Now, with the signing of the mandate, a nomination committee will begin the process of seating a truth commission. 

Why open the wounds of the past?  Because they never closed.  Not for the children who were taken.  Not for the state workers whose job it was to take them away.  Not for communities struggling with high rates of suicide, addiction, and incarceration.  And most importantly of all, not for today’s native children, who bear the legacy of all that pain while trying to make their way in a world that continues, all too often, to be hostile to them. 

As the AFSC’s Denise Altvater said at the signing of the Mandate, “It is my greatest hope that we can use this process to move out of the darkness of the past and find a life full of hopes and dreams and happiness. No more nightmares.  No more pain.  No more regrets.  No more tears.  It’s time for truth.  It’s time for healing.  It’s time for peace.  And it’s time for forgiveness.”

With the Truth Commission set to be seated this fall and communities preparing to support individuals who plan to testify, there is indeed a growing sense that those hopes might be realized and that the time will soon come.

View recent coverage of this story on Maine Public Broadcasting Network.


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