BANGOR, Maine — Native American people make up about 3 percent of the incarcerated population in Maine, though they account for only about half a percent of the state’s total population, according to data from the Maine Department of Corrections and the U.S. Census Bureau.
That is why the Maine Wabanaki-State Child Welfare Truth and Reconciliation Commission and the Maine-Wabanaki REACH organization plan to engage members of Maine’s tribes who are incarcerated and people who work in Maine’s prisons in their work in the coming months.
“When people are incarcerated we tend to forget about them,” said Esther Attean, co-director of Maine-Wabanaki REACH, a cross-cultural support and advocacy group. “Their families don’t, but they’re very marginalized.”
The groups have received a joint grant of $150,000 from the Elmina B. Sewall Foundation to use over a two-year period. The grant will allow them to hire a community organizer who will go into prisons to educate tribal members and eventually gather statements from them as part of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s 27-month undertaking to collect testimony from native people who interacted with the state’s child welfare system.
The two organizations have been working to uncover and acknowledge the trauma suffered by families because of practices that brought Wabanaki children into the welfare system at disproportionate rates over many years. Community organizers and Truth and Reconciliation commissioners have gathered about 40 statements from tribal members who interacted with the state’s child welfare system.
Starting this week, statements will also be gathered from non-tribal members who worked with Wabanaki people in the child welfare system. Wabanaki refers collectively to the four remaining tribes in Maine: the Penobscot, Maliseet, Micmac and Passamaquoddy.
Thanks to the grant, that work will now extend to tribal members who are in the prison system.
“Our intent is to be able to afford those people who are incarcerated the same education of our history,” Attean said. They will be given “the opportunity to share their story with the [Truth and Reconciliation Commission] and the opportunity to participate and have access to some healing activities.”
Often, people in the prison system were at one point involved in the child welfare system, said Rachel George, the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s research coordinator.
George explained that it is difficult to find a native person who has not experienced some sort of trauma. That trauma is passed down through generations from parents to their children and affects many aspects of people’s lives.
Educating the native population about the impacts of trauma and their history through this grant will help “bring people to the realization that it’s not because native people have a predisposition to alcohol or drug abuse,” she said. “It’s because we’ve been dealing with trauma for [hundreds] of years — since contact.”