I first learned about the truth and reconciliation process 15 years ago when a Micmac friend told me she had been notified by the Canadian government that she would receive a sum of money as a kind of reparation for treatment she received as a child at an Indian boarding school.
Born in Quebec, she was 9 years old when her mother, a widow, died of leukemia and an Indian agent took her and her 7-year-old sister to a residential school in Schubenacadie, Nova Scotia. Sixty years later, memories of her four years there are still too painful to share publicly, but I will never forget the few experiences she recalled for me.
Memories of those conversations resurfaced recently as I learned more about efforts in Maine to make amends for injustices to Indian children removed from their families.
During the Nov. 2 service of Caribou’s Unitarian Universalist Congregation, the board president read a certificate of appreciation from the education and advocacy group Maine-Wabanaki REACH for use of the church building as a place to interview people involved with Maine’s child welfare system. The certificate was signed by the speaker for a program I had attended in Orono five days earlier — Barbara Kates, Maine community organizer for Maine-Wabanaki REACH, a cross-cultural collaborative that promotes the best child welfare practices between Wabanaki and Maine citizens, communities and governments.
“People around the nation and the world are watching Maine right now,” Kates told her Orono audience at the Church of Universal Fellowship. In a subsequent interview, she explained that Maine and its tribes are the first in the nation to have a truth and reconciliation commission. In addition, Maine’s commission is the first in the world that began as a grassroots effort and developed a mandate signed by multiple governments.
Kates quoted Bennett Collins, a University of St. Andrews researcher of indigenous peoples, who served on a panel about truth and reconciliation at an academic conference.
“All the questions were about Maine,” he said of responses to the presentation.
Even though the federal Indian Child Welfare Act was passed in 1978 to provide protection for Native American children and families, Maine was still placing native children in non-native homes at a high rate into the 1990s, Kates said. After a federal review found Maine lacking, the state invited tribal welfare staff to help redesign training for child welfare workers.
Maine-Wabanaki REACH established the Maine Wabanaki-State Child Welfare Truth and Reconciliation Commission and the five-member commission was seated in February 2013. It has until November 2015 to investigate and issue a report on Wabanaki experiences with the Maine child welfare system since 1978.
Funded through private donations and foundations, the commission works to achieve three goals: truth, healing and change. Through interviewing native and non-native people involved in child welfare practices, the commission seeks to discover what happened: How children came to be placed in non-native homes and the effects of being removed from their families. Findings and recommendations will be presented to the tribal and state governments and to the general public.
Listening times and ceremonial gatherings will take place in each of the five Wabanaki communities and in non-Indian communities of Maine. Maine’s Wabanaki tribes are the Aroostook Band of Micmacs, the Houlton Band of Maliseet Indians, the Passamaquoddy Tribe of Indian Township (Motahkomikuk), the Passamaquoddy Tribe of Pleasant Point (Sipayik) and the Penobscot Indian Nation.
“There will be a chance for all voices to be heard,” according to an online statement at MaineWabanakiREACH.org. “It will be tough for people to tell their stories because many of these stories are painful to remember. Whether it is a mother who had children taken away, the children who were taken away or other family and friends who were affected by the child welfare system, these stories will not be easy to tell or easy to hear.”
Dena Joseph is one of two community organizers within the Micmac community in Presque Isle. She and co-worker Krista Stevens help the truth and reconciliation commission find people within the community who are willing to share their stories. They seek to foster peace and healing through talking circles where members can discuss concerns.
She also organizes youth art programs for groups ages 5 to 11 and 12 to 18. At the conclusion of a recent six-week youth art program, the Micmac council chambers were decorated with collages of pictures representing the youngsters’ “Dreams for Our Community.”
“My highest aspiration is that this becomes a permanent fixture in the community to give the community more cultural support,” Joseph said. She also envisions a traditional “long house” — a sacred place where people can come together — in each of the five Wabanaki communities.
As the organizer for interviews of non-native people, Kates said staff members have spoken with foster parents, attorneys, judges, therapists and others in public and private roles related to child welfare.
“People in Aroostook County have been very welcoming,” she said, mentioning several offers to provide places for interviews.
In addition to reaching out to those involved with the child welfare system, she promotes education and helps organize allies — groups of volunteers dedicated to increasing cross-cultural understanding.
Kates said more than 100 native and non-native people in the state have been interviewed so far and she praised participants’ “trust in the process” — sharing their stories with faith that the results will be positive. “We have an amazing moment to look at our shared history and from that can learn what we want to be,” Kates said. “It’s not easy to look, but even though it might not be comfortable, we can do this.”
For more information visit MaineWabanakiREACH.org.
Kathryn Olmstead is a former University of Maine associate dean and associate professor of journalism living in Aroostook County, where she publishes the quarterly magazine Echoes. Her column appears in this space every other Friday. She can be reached at email@example.com or P.O. Box 626, Caribou, ME 04736.