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To heal we must learn: a mandate for Wabanaki child welfare

Posted Sept. 06, 2012, at 7:37 p.m.

It’s happening. A selection panel, convened to choose five commissioners for Maine’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission, is ready for nominations. Its 13 members are looking for commissioners who can listen with empathy to stories of Wabanaki adults, caught up as children in the child welfare system, and then make recommendations for improvements.

Now at the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s homepage, any Maine resident can nominate someone to be a commissioner.

This concrete step is occurring only two months after I traveled to our state capital on June 29 to witness the historic signing of the mandate creating the Maine Wabanaki-State Child Welfare Truth and Reconciliation Commission. Entering the Hall of Flags, I was greeted with a warm hug from a Passamaquoddy friend whose daughter I’d worked with during a Wabanaki Writers Project camp. With that hug I realized this document, signed by leaders of six governments in Maine, was also about relationships.

The mandate grew out of relationships developed between state and Wabanaki child welfare leaders. The Wabanaki leaders came from the Houlton Band of Maliseet Indians, the Aroostook Band of Micmacs, the Passamaquoddy Tribes at Indian Township and Pleasant Point, and the Penobscot Nation, all members of the Wabanaki Confederacy. Together with state leaders, they composed goals for the mandate. One goal is to recommend ways Maine’s child welfare system can better serve Wabanaki children, families and communities. A successful effort could establish Maine as a national model for compassionate, cross-cultural work in child welfare.

Prior to the collaboration of state and tribal child welfare leaders, Wabanaki children in Maine were placed in non-native foster homes at a higher rate than in most other states. This traumatic uprooting of native children from their cultural values, perspectives and beliefs, as well as from family and community, left wounds which have filtered into the next generations.

The mandate offers those wounded by the child welfare system an opportunity to heal by participating in an empathetic process. Validated by this experience, they may then build more viable relationships with their families and friends. My heart joins Wabanaki friends in hoping these tellers-of-truth will receive strong support from family, friends and counselors as they process reawakened feelings.

During the signing ceremony, Gov. Paul LePage spoke about a homeless period during his own youth when he at least could walk familiar streets. This was not true, he said, for Wabanaki children, caught up in the child welfare system. Later, each Wabanaki chief spoke, asking that tribal people be seen and heard, that they be respected. The tribes sought neither reparations, nor apologies, they said, but would welcome alliances addressing common concerns between our cultures.

Since the ceremony, I’ve pondered their words and wondered, as European-Americans, what our journey toward reconciliation requires of us. I believe first we need to heal from separateness.

Reading Native American thinkers, novelists and poets and hearing Oren Lyons discuss the Doctrine of Discovery on YouTube, I’ve realized my separateness of seven decades was rooted in not knowing Native American historical and spiritual perspectives. I’ve learned that Wabanaki gave thanks each lunar month for thousands of years before the “First Thanksgiving” and that they regard Mother Earth and all living creatures as relatives, to be respected.

When the Penobscot River Restoration Project began dismantling the Great Works Dam in Old Town this past June, Penobscot Chief Kirk Francis said that reuniting long absent fish with their historic homeland “continues the restoration of ancient cycles of creation in a river we have been connected to for thousands of years, and makes us who we are as a people.”

Separateness implies an absence of compassionate connection with “the others” in our human family. European-Americans and Native Americans view a shared history of 500 years from vastly different perspectives. We know little of Native Americans’ historical experience, nor of their perspectives based on cultural values and beliefs. The TRC mandate is our opportunity to move beyond one-sided, sterilized versions of history and stereotypical portrayals of native culture.

Our areas of interest will vary. Our intent to learn will lead us to read material presented from the perspective of Native Americans and to attend Wabanaki events. Many Wabanaki welcome learners. Perhaps you will meet a Wabanaki person, move beyond “hello” to an authentic question, begin a relationship and thus experience your heart’s way of knowing.

If we let our busy lives continue to focus only on our own culture, we will sustain separateness. If we make time to begin understanding Native American historical and cultural perspectives, we can develop new perspectives and perhaps new relationships. To overcome separateness, to heal, we must all learn.

Paul Frost lives in Bass Harbor. He taught “education in a multicultural society” at the University of Maine’s College of Education from 2006 to 2011 and is a coordinator of the Wabanaki Writers Project.

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