The injustice of what happened to many American Indian families in Maine can be overwhelming. State social workers took children away from their parents and communities to assimilate them into white culture, sometimes forcing them to live with abusive foster families. This is part of the state’s history.
But there is also hope, which comes from the collaboration of entities that were long foes: the state and Wabanaki tribal governments. On Tuesday, they took an encouraging step along what will be a long road of relationship-building and, hopefully, improvements to the child welfare system.
The announcement of the five commissioners for the Maine Wabanaki-State Child Welfare Truth and Reconciliation Commission gives the state its first look at the people who will fill a historic, challenging role. As part of the first truth and reconciliation commission in the U.S. to be jointly agreed upon by state and tribal leaders, their task will be to travel several days per month to reservations and other locations to listen to people’s experiences.
They may hear from mothers who had their children stolen away from them under the rule “Kill the Indian to save the child.” They may hear from those children — now adults — who were raised in a society not their own. It’s possible they will listen to community members who saw foster-care placements in non-Wabanaki homes contribute to the loss of language and culture.
The commissioners will aim to understand why the experiences occurred and determine what more needs to change. The commission cannot pursue criminal or civil claims. Its job is to create an account of history and make recommendations for how to continue to build the best child welfare system possible for Wabanaki youth.
A 13-member selection panel, tasked by tribal governments and the state, unanimously selected five commission members from diverse, accomplished backgrounds in social work, education, law, politics and peace and reconciliation.
They are Carol Wishcamper, an organizational consultant and former chairman of the Maine Board of Education; Sandra White Hawk, a Sicangu Lakota adoptee from the Rosebud Reservation in South Dakota who is the founder of First Nations Repatriation Institute; Dr. Gail Werrbach, director and associate professor at the University of Maine School of Social Work; gkisedtanamoogk, a Wampanoag man who is an adjunct instructor in peace, reconciliation and Native American studies at the University of Maine; and Matthew Dunlap, Maine’s next secretary of state.
The commissioners will be sworn in and seated in the new year. They will hire staff and develop operating procedures. Then, once they are fully oriented, they will begin the listening process. For them to comprehensively investigate, it’s important for everyone who had a relevant experience with the child welfare system during the past few decades to come forward. It’s also important for people across Maine, who are not directly connected, to listen and learn.
We hope those who participate are able to achieve some level of healing. We also hope the process of having the tribal governments and state working together creates momentum for further collaboration. The selection of the commissioners is a small but key step toward that future.