A special commission charged with investigating and documenting how Wabanaki people suffered from Maine’s child welfare system will begin its work in earnest next week with a visit to the Passamaquoddy tribe at Pleasant Point.
For the five-member commission, sworn in on Feb. 12, the Nov. 20-22 visit will be the first to a Wabanaki community to begin collecting accounts of people who were harmed by antiquated child welfare practices. The Maine Wabanaki-State Child Welfare Truth and Reconciliation Commission also is charged with recommending best child welfare practices with regards to the Wabanaki.
Esther Attean, co-director of Maine-Wabanaki REACH, an organization that helped prepare the groundwork for the commission and is working with the tribal communities to prepare them to participate in the commission’s work, was asked to characterize the sense of the Passamaquoddy people at Pleasant Point in light of the panel’s visit.
“I think fear is the overriding feeling of everyone, [mainly fear of breaking silence and speaking out],” said Attean, who grew up in Pleasant Point and now lives in Old Town. “So there’s a lot of fear, but there’s a lot of excitement. We have folks who are ready to come … and share their stories,” she said Sunday.
Community organizers have been holding meetings to educate, inform and prepare members of the Pleasant Point community for the commission’s visit, said Attean. A group also was formed to help guide the process of interacting with the commission. In fact, the commission’s mandate gives the tribal people control over the visit by the panel. Each community essentially dictates how the visit will be conducted and invites the commission when the people are ready. The commission made a preliminary visit to Pleasant Point in September to meet with residents and answer questions about its activities.
The commission was officially mandated by the five Wabanaki chiefs — the other four Wabanaki tribes are the Passamaquoddy at Indian Township, the Micmac in Aroostook, the Maliseet in Houlton, and the Penobscot near Orono — and Gov. Paul LePage in June 2012 and has until November 2015 to complete its mission. The five commissioners were chosen by a 13-member committee in December 2012 based on their experience with state-tribal relationships, welfare services and government.
The commission co-chairmen are Carol Wishcamper of Freeport, a consultant, and gkisedtanamoogk, an adjunct professor of Native American studies and the peace and reconciliation programs at the University of Maine. The other commissioners are Matthew Dunlap, Gail Werrbach and Sandra White Hawk.
The commission will be “quite busy” at Pleasant Point, Wishcamper said Saturday. Members of the Passamaquoddy tribe will have the opportunity to talk about their experiences, which they will be able to do in private, if they prefer. The activities also will include a “listening circle,” allowing participants to tell their stories and get mutual support, said Wishcamper. Ceremonies will kick off and close the three-day gathering.
The commission will visit other Native American communities in the coming months. It plans to visit Indian Township in February and later meet with Native Americans in Bangor and reservation communities. In addition, it will meet with officials representing state child welfare and social service agencies, the criminal justice system, foster parents and foster children.
“It’s an intense schedule,” said Wishcamper.
Attean made two presentations related to the commission’s work, speaking at Washington County Community College in Calais and at the University of Maine at Machias last week. She spent about 45 minutes in Machias on Thursday evening discussing the history of Native Americans with particular focus on Maine’s tribes as well as information about events that led to the formation of the commission.
Some 20 Wabanaki tribes originally inhabited Maine, Attean told the Machias audience of about 40 people, but 16 were “annihilated by genocide,” and only four remain. Ninety-six percent of the Wabanaki population was depleted after the arrival of Europeans to North America; there are about 8,000 Wabanaki today.
In the late 1800s, government policies shifted away from genocide of tribal peoples to forced assimilation into American culture, she said. Indian children were removed from their homes and placed in foster homes of white families and also sent to boarding schools. Native American children were abused in various ways by their foster parents and in the boarding schools, she said.
“They were very damaged,” said Attean. “All that trauma has been passed down [through the generations],” she added. Attean referred to studies showing that tribal people have high rates of substance abuse and dependency, other health problems and violent crime.
Denise Altvater, 53, a Passamaquoddy who lives at Pleasant Point, also spoke at the university and described her experience of being removed from her family’s home and put into foster care when she was 7. For four years, she and her siblings were “tortured,” said Altvater — raped, starved and beaten.
Since the commission has no state funding, it has had to raise funds to support its activities, noted Wishcamper. The commission recruited and hired an executive director who in turn recruited and hired other staff, as well as adding unpaid interns. Fundraising continues with a particular focus on being able to hire staffers to work in specific communities to engage tribal people in the commission’s activities. The commission staff has offices in Ellsworth.
The commission’s work will not be a snapshot of the issue, said Wishcamper.
“This is not intended to be a one-shot deal … It’s intended to be an opening … so people can begin to heal from the intergenerational trauma that’s resulted from the numbers of children who’ve been taken from the community,” he said.
The truth and reconciliation process has only been used twice before in the U.S., observed Wishcamper, but those commissions were at the municipal level. The Maine commission is “the first time a state has committed to a process,” she said.
“I’m incredibly hopeful about what’s going to come out of this,” said commission executive director Heather Martin. “I think this is a great opportunity for the whole state.”