There is no way to take back the past. But if Maine wants to ensure that it never, ever repeats its racist, oppressive treatment of American Indian families and communities, it must know what it did. Under the first truth and reconciliation commission in the United States to be jointly agreed upon by state and tribal leaders, Mainers will have the opportunity to listen to mothers whose children were taken to be assimilated into white culture, and to those children — now adults — who were forced to live with foster families that were sometimes emotionally, physically and sexually abusive.
In order for the members of Maine’s five tribes to achieve some level of healing, it’s important for everyone who had a relevant experience with the child welfare system over the past few decades to participate in the Maine Wabanaki-State Child Welfare Truth and Reconciliation Commission. Sharing what happened is essential if the commission is to comprehensively investigate and make suggestions for improvements. Also important is the willingness of Mainers not connected to the child welfare system to listen and learn.
The formation of the truth and reconciliation commission is the result of years of work on the part of a convening group comprising people from the state, several organizations and each of the Wabanaki communities: Aroostook Band of Micmacs, Houlton Band of Maliseet Indians, Passamaquoddy Tribe at Motahkmikuk, Passamaquoddy Tribe at Sipayik and the Penobscot Indian Nation. The convening group helped draft a mandate, which the chiefs and Gov. Paul LePage signed on June 29, to lay out the three-year-long truth and reconciliation process.
A selection panel is accepting nominations for commissioners until Oct. 1, when it will choose five who “are trusted by both tribal and state governments and their respective citizens,” according to the mandate. The commissioners then will travel several days per month to reservations to listen to people’s experiences, seek to understand why the experiences occurred and determine what needs to change. The commission cannot pursue criminal or civil claims; its role is to create a written account and make recommendations for child welfare reform.
Historically, efforts to assimilate Indian children into non-native culture, in many cases, devastated tribal communities. In the 1800s, church groups, with government support, took Indian children and sent them to boarding schools, far from their culture, religion, language and families. Many of the children were abused; many died.
In 1958, the Bureau of Indian Affairs and the Child Welfare League of America partnered to establish the Indian Adoption Project to place Indian children with adoptive white families. Though the children were taken in many cases from reservations suffering from poverty, their removal resulted in a form of cultural genocide. Surveys by the Association of American Indian Affairs in 1969 and 1974 showed that between 25 percent and 35 percent of all Indian children were separated from their homes and living in foster care, adoptive care or institutions at the time. Though the federal Indian Child Welfare Act was passed in 1978 to give Indian children more protection, some problems persisted.
Maine’s truth and reconciliation commission is important because it sets the framework for understanding different perspectives of the state’s history. There is an air of something with national significance being accomplished, too. This commission is set to be the third such undertaking in U.S. history and the first to have this level of joint support from the state and tribes, according to commission Interim Director Carolyn Morrison. The nation will watch.
The aim of the process is not to make people feel guilty or seek reparations but to find a way to heal and build the relationship between the tribes and state. For people who will find it painful to tell their stories, know that those of us listening will be celebrating your strength.