AUGUSTA, Maine — Robert Shetterly has been painting portraits of “ Americans Who Tell The Truth” for 12 years. In that time, he’s captured nearly 200 activists, historic figures, freedom fighters and others he says exemplify courage in the face of injustice.
On Wednesday, he unveiled the two most recent additions, Esther Attean and Denise Altvater, both co-founders of the Maine Wabanaki-State Child Welfare Truth and Reconciliation Commission, or TRC for short.
Shetterly spent hours with each woman, learning about their experiences and their work to address the issues regarding the welfare of Indian children in Maine.
“As a white person in this country, [the TRC] is an opportunity to have the grief, the shame of our dark history, lifted just a little bit,” he said in an interview Wednesday. “The truth and reconciliation process gives us a chance to get our humanity back.”
The TRC’s task is to find out what happened to the Wabanaki people — the group which includes all of Maine’s Indian tribes — involved in the state child welfare program, which during the 1950s carried out a policy of removing Indian children from their homes and placing them with non-Indian families. The goal is to provide an avenue for healing, and give the state suggestions on how better to work with Maine’s indigenous communities.
The commission held its first series of listening sessions in November at the Passamaquoddy Pleasant Point Reservation, known locally as Sipayik.
Attean is a co-director of Wabanaki-REACH, the organization that laid the groundwork for the TRC. A member of the Passamaquoddy Tribe who currently lives in Old Town, she has worked for years to educate about the plight of Indian communities and about the systematic genocide perpetrated against them.
In workshops, Attean has said some 20 Wabanaki tribes originally inhabited Maine, 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 only about 8,000 Wabanaki today.
“We are survivors, but we haven’t survived these policies of genocide unscathed,” she said Wednesday. “But we are still here.”
It’s hard to imagine a story that better demonstrates the hell experienced by many indigenous children than Altvater’s.
Years ago, Altvater and her five sisters, members of the Penobscot Indian Nation, were taken from their parents’ home and placed with a non-tribal family in Old Town. Altvater has said she came to the TRC project “full of childhood memories about the abuse and torture that I suffered in a foster home for four years as a young girl.”
That treatment included sexual molestation and long overnights locked in the dark, unheated cellar of her foster home, she said. Altvater tried to tell state workers what was happening, but no one believed her, she said. Eventually, the young sisters were placed in a safer home, but no charges were ever brought against the couple who allegedly abused them.
On Wednesday, after her portrait was unveiled, Altvater said participating in the TRC sessions at Sipayik “broke her heart,” but that giving voice to her community’s experience was a crucial part of the healing process.
“I cried for days and days listening to all that pain,” but the pain came with moments of catharsis, she said — including one of her sister’s sharing her own story for the first time.
“These are the things that are going to make us strong,” she said.
The portraits were scheduled to be shown at Bowdoin College on Wednesday night, Shetterly said, after which they would join the 195 others in the series, rotating through galleries and schools nationwide.
Follow Mario Moretto on Twitter at @riocarmine.