BANGOR, Maine — A commission formed to help heal the divide between the state and its native people called upon Gov. Paul LePage to reinstate his 2011 executive order proclaiming a special relationship between the tribes and the state during a public forum Thursday night at Husson University.
The recommendation, which drew applause from the audience of about 150, was one of several made by the Maine Wabanaki-State Child Welfare Truth & Reconciliation Commission,” the first truth and reconciliation effort focusing on child welfare in the country. It was created by Maine-Wabanaki REACH, the cross-cultural group that will ensure that its recommendations are considered and implemented.
The governor last month rescinded his order titled “ Recognizing the Special Relationship Between the State of Maine and the Sovereign Native American Tribes Located Within the State of Maine.” It is still unclear what prompted the move, but some tribal officials believe it was retaliation over the state and Wabanaki people’s dispute over water quality standards.
The recommendation that it be reinstated drew applause from the audience.
“Come back to the table, Gov. LePage,” Charlotte Bacon, the commission’s executive director, said after the clapping died down.
A message left with the governor’s office seeking comment Friday was not immediately returned.
Billed as “The Mandate and Beyond: Recommendations of the Maine Wabanaki-State Child Welfare Truth & Reconciliation Commission,” Thursday’s public forum provided a first look at some of the findings and recommendations the commission has developed over the last two years.
The commission’s three-pronged mission calls for uncovering and acknowledging the truth about what happened to Wabanaki children and families involved with the Maine child welfare system, creating opportunities to heal and learn from that truth and working together to create the best child welfare system possible for Wabanaki children and their families.
What the commission has found is a history of trauma much more extensive than the child welfare system. Esther Attean, a member of the Passamaquoddy Tribe and co-director of Maine-Wabanaki REACH, called the effects of the Maine and United States governments’ treatment of Native Americans intergenerational trauma.
Among the things taken from Native Americans were their land, livelihood, language, loved ones, religion and traditional coping mechanisms, REACH co-director Penthea Burns said.
“Trauma that’s inflicted on any group of people over multiple generations which still impacts them today is sometimes called historical trauma, which we don’t prefer because it lets people think it’s something that happened in the past and it’s not continuing,” she said.
One of the first to use the term “intergenerational trauma” was Maria Yellow Horse Brave Heart, a Native American social worker, educator and researcher when she was trying to figure out why native people weren’t attaining the American Dream. Attean said the researcher’s 1998 article titled “The American Indian Holocaust: Healing Historical Unresolved Grief” was eyeopening.
“It’s usually the combination of immense losses and takings, traumatic assaults, extreme hopelessness that’s perpetuated upon an entire culture. It’s cumulative and collective, and it results in increasing emotional and physical, psychological wounding across generations,” Attean said.
Attean pointed out that native children are seven times more likely to commit suicide than other American children and they have the lowest educational outcomes. Native people also are more likely to be homeless and less likely to own homes in their own territory, she said.
“I think it’s very important for native people to know our history and to know that there’s nothing wrong with us. This is not our fault,” she said.
In addition to intergenerational trauma, core issues that the commission has been grappling with are institutional racism and contested sovereignty.
Since it was established two years ago, the commission has taken 156 statements from Wabanaki people affected by harmful child welfare policy and from non-natives ranging from foster and adoptive parents and social workers to legal guardians, judges and lawyers, Bacon said. It has worked with more than a dozen focus groups, including one for incarcerated Wabanaki tribal members, and tt also has conducted archival and legislative research.
In 1999, the Wabanaki tribal nations joined with state child welfare officials to form the Truth and Reconciliation Commission with the goal of improving 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, according to published reports.
Beginning in the late 1800s, the U.S. government established boarding schools for Native American children, who were removed from their families in an attempt to assimilate them into American culture.
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. That program sometimes placed children with abusive or neglectful guardians.
Bacon said that the commission’s recommendations for improving the treatment of Wabanaki families include respecting tribal sovereignty, honoring their traditions and culture and making sure the state fully complies with the spirit of the Indian Child Welfare Act.
Further recommendations are that the state celebrate the renaissance of Maine’s tribes, develop more substantive training for those who work with native families and children and maintain communication with all stakeholders and investigate creating a joint legislative committee on tribal and state affairs.
The Bangor public forum was the first of five visits commissioners and staff are conducting to talk about the truth and reconciliation process, review lessons learned from their research findings and offer their recommendations.
The others are as follows: Presque Isle, May 6; Machias, May 13; Portland, May 27; and Augusta, June 1. Similar forums are taking place in each of Maine’s tribal communities.
The commission’s visits lead up to the release of the final report during the “Closing Ceremony of the Maine Wabanaki-State Child Welfare TRC: Moving Forward with Truth, Healing and Change” set for 2 p.m. June 14 at the Morgan Hill Event Center in Hermon.
For more information, call the commission’s office in Ellsworth at 664-0280 or email firstname.lastname@example.org.