HERMON, Maine — For more than a century, Wabanaki children were taken from their families by the state or churches and placed in foster care or schools, where speaking their language or practicing their customs was often forbidden.
On Tuesday, five members of a new commission vowed to expose the trauma suffered by children and families affected by the antiquated welfare practices and to help the tribal communities heal.
Commissioners Matthew Dunlap, gkisedtanamoogk, Gail Werrbach, Sandra White Hawk and Carol Wishcamper were sworn into the Maine Wabanaki-State Child Welfare Truth and Reconciliation Commission during a daylong event at Morgan Hill Event Center in Hermon. During the next three years, the group will gather testimony and stories from tribal families, welfare workers and others to create a report outlining the history behind the policies and recommend changes to prevent future harmful welfare practices.
“This Truth and Reconciliation Commission process is crucial to healing,” said Chief Richard Getchell of the Aroostook Band of Micmacs. “We must give our people the opportunity to share their experiences, to bring voice to all that has been suppressed and repressed for far too many years.”
Beginning in the late 1800s, the United States government established boarding schools for Native American children who were removed from their families in an attempt to assimilate them into American culture, according to commission documents.
In the late 1950s, the Bureau of Indian Affairs and the Child Welfare League of America created the Indian Adoption Project, which removed Native American children from their families and tribes to be adopted by non-native families or go to schools where they were banned from speaking their native language or practicing tribal customs.
These practices were widespread, according to Esther Alvater Attean of the Muskie School of Public Service. During the nine years of the Indian Adoption Project alone, nearly 400 Native American children from 16 states were sent to foster families. Other, less centralized programs preceded and followed that “concerted” project, she said. Churches and residential schools had programs of their own, which spanned a century and a half.
Attean said that as late as the late-1990s, 16 percent of Maliseet children were in state foster care.
In 1999, the Wabanaki tribal nations joined with state child welfare officials to improve Maine’s compliance with 1978’s federal Indian Child Welfare Act, which set higher standards of protection for the rights of native children, their families and their tribal communities. That effort laid the groundwork for the Truth and Reconciliation Commission.
Similar truth and reconciliation groups have been formed across the globe — from Canada to South America — to examine human rights violations. Pat Clark, who served on a Greensboro, N.C., commission formed in 2004 in response to the 1979 Greensboro Massacre, said during Tuesday’s event that human rights violations in communities don’t “happen in a vacuum.”
The Greensboro Massacre resulted in the deaths of five protest marchers and injuries to 11 others at the hands of members of white supremacist groups. The protesters were marching in favor of the unionization of a largely black workforce in the area.
Racism and socioeconomics played a part in the killings in Greensboro, and the same issues likely were at play in Maine’s welfare practices, Clark said.
During a breakout session, Sharon Tomah, a social worker with Wabanaki Health and Wellness in Bangor, and interim TRC Director Carolyn Morrison spoke with a group of attendees about intergenerational trauma — or how people with a history ravaged by war, disease, subjugation or displacement tend to face “psychological wounding across generations.”
Those wounds can result in problems with addiction, poverty and disease for many years after the initial trauma, and the pain and problems are passed from generation to generation.
Tomah said people often “confuse symptoms of distress for the actual syndrome.”
The commission called for a day of reflection, meditation and prayer on Monday as a way of helping Wabanaki people and the commissioners “prepare for their difficult work,” according to John Dieffenbacher-Krall, executive director of the Maine Indian Tribal State Commission.
“I don’t think the work will ever be done in terms of healing,” Penobscot Indian Nation Tribal Chief Kirk Francis said Tuesday. “We’re trying to overcome 150 years of issues here.”