The Maine Wabanaki-State Child Welfare Truth and Reconciliation Commission is in its first year in the state of Maine. We are the only state in the country to take this historic step — looking at what happened to native children in foster care, many forcibly removed from native homes and placed in white homes.
The Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s five commissioners made their first visit to the Passamaquoddy community of Sipayik in November to officially begin hearing native people tell what happened to them in the child welfare system and the impact that has had.
On Dec. 4 in the Hall of Flags of the State Capital in Augusta, another event took place that is a profound outgrowth of this Truth and Reconciliation Commission. Every native and non-native Mainer deserves to hear about it. It was not what any of us expected who had planned the event.
The painter Robert Shetterly, creator of the decade-long project “Americans Who Tell the Truth,” unveiled his two most recent portraits: of Denise Altvater and Esther Attean, two Passamaquoddy women who are core leaders of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission movement. After the speeches, a former state health and human services worker who had taken native children out of native homes and placed them in white homes, stood up and asked for forgiveness.
Here’s what happened in Shetterly’s words:
“When the event concluded, I went over to the DHS worker and thanked her for her courage to speak up, to expose her own guilt and remorse. She had just told me her name when Denise appeared and clasped her in a tight embrace. Then Denise drew back and kissed the woman’s right cheek, then her forehead, then simply rested her forehead against hers and held that position of bodies embracing, foreheads touching —- a complete connection of body and mind — for a long time. Finally Denise took a half step back and continued to hold the woman’s hands, just looking into her eyes. Both women were in tears. Nothing was said. But because of the intimacy of it, I said to Denise — stupidly — ‘Oh, you must know each other?’ Denise said, ‘No, we’ve never met.’
“I tried to understand later what had happened there. I could recognize the woman’s courage and her pain but had no legitimacy to offer more. What Denise had done was deeply consoling. Denise gave her something that words could not and that could only come from Denise, for Denise, now in her early 50s, had been forcibly removed from her home at the age of 7 along with five of her sisters. What she offered could only come from the heart and soul of the victim.
“I have to assume that the woman felt forgiven. It was such a profound dynamic: Denise, still struggling with her trauma, very fragile herself, has the strength to comfort an agent of the state whose agency victimized her. The agent is humbled by her remorse; the victim is empowered with her ability to forgive, to heal. Both are ennobled by the integrity of what they have given each other.
“In my talk earlier, I had spoken about the immense darkness of the native genocide, how unfathomable is its pain and grief, how it makes a mockery of the democratic ideals of this country — which is why people don’t like to talk about it, admit its ongoing legacy. Which is why a formal commission of truth and reconciliation is necessary.
“And, here I was in awe of the immensity of Denise’s heart, her ability to reach out of that darkness to respond to another’s pain, and ironically it is the pain of a representative of the agency responsible for hers. Here was what the [Truth and Reconciliation Commission] is all about. What happened was a moment of grace, a kind of matching of disparate but congruent pains that must be made to fit together if some healing is to take place.
“I then saw the [Truth and Reconciliation Commission] as a metaphoric alter — if you will — a sacred place that people can approach, carrying whatever piece of this traumatic burden that they own, lay it down, and find reconciliation in seeing all those true pieces laid out together.”
Arla Patch is the community engagement coordinator for Maine-Wabanaki REACH, the cross-cultural collaborative responsible for readying Maine for the work of the TRC Commissioners. Robert Shetterly’s “Americans Who Tell the Truth” series can be seen at www.americanswhotellthetruth.org.