This Father’s Day I would like to ask Gov. Paul LePage to support an important effort for improving the lives of Maine children. As the governor knows, there is no greater gift for a father — or any adult raising any child — than to know that you have provided your child with the values and lessons they will need to thrive in the world. When you see your child succeed, who needs a new necktie?
But as the governor also knows too well, not every child enjoys such an upbringing. The challenges from his own childhood, I think, encouraged him to join the five chiefs from Maine’s four Wabanaki tribes — the Mi’kmaqs, the Maliseets, the Penobscots and the Passamaquoddy — in signing the mandate that created the Maine Wabanaki-State Child Welfare Truth and Reconciliation Commission in June 2012.
The commission was established to find out why Wabanaki children in state care have not always gotten the support they have needed.
“I am happy we are able to take this next step to continue this important effort,” LePage said in 2012. “Repairing damage from prior administrations is a gesture that is important to me.”
Unfortunately, there is a lot of damage to fix. Wabanakis have suffered generations of systematic oppression, even in their own homes. State officials often took Wabanaki children to re-educate them in the values of the dominant white society. Beginning in the 1870s, children were placed in boarding schools. By the 1950s, the state put Wabanaki children up for adoption or foster care with non-Indians.
Wabanaki children suffered. The TRC gathered statements from more than 150 people — both Wabanakis and non-Indians. The report, which was released last week and can be viewed at http://www.mainewabanakitrc.org/report/, describes a long history of abuses.
As one Wabanaki put it, “There was all types of abuse at the foster home. But the biggest thing is that I was not allowed to grow up with my culture, and I was made to feel ashamed of my culture.”
Another Wabanaki recalled that she was so ashamed of being Wabanaki that she and her sister would soak themselves in bleach in hopes of making their skin whiter.
Without question, some children needed the safer homes that foster care could provide. The problem was that state officials did not believe Wabanaki communities could provide those better homes. A federal law passed in 1978 required the state to seek Wabanaki homes for Wabanaki children, but as LePage noted in 2012, the damage continued.
One tribal chief explained to the TRC, “We have one generation after another growing up, … living in doubt of the validity of their own culture and their own sense of being. That’s happening today, right now.”
In light of this fact, one state worker concluded with dismay, “I’ve been an agent … of genocide.”
Genocide is a powerful word, one we do not associate with homes and schools. But the state has long made it difficult for Wabanaki communities to raise Wabanaki children according to Wabanaki values. According to the United Nations 1948 convention on genocide, such policies kill cultures.
The TRC report identifies many problems and the pain they have caused, but it also offers a path toward healing. Wabanakis have the tools to raise their children.
“Historically, we took care of children,” said one former tribal health director. “That’s who we are. And because of that willingness to take care of each other, that’s how we’ve survived.”
State officials should still look out for those who are vulnerable to abuse and violence. It needs to do that work, though, with an awareness of and respect for Wabanakis’ status as independent communities, communities whose sovereignty predates the existence of this state.
I know that sovereignty, like genocide, is a powerful word. Questions of sovereignty have strained relations between the state and the Wabanaki tribes. The TRC report recognizes this, and it also recognizes that many difficult conversations lie ahead. When it comes to child welfare, though, the governor, state officials and Wabanakis all stand on common ground: they all want what is best for their kids.
And sovereignty is really about being able to raise your children right. As Passamaquoddy social worker Esther Attean has said, “Sovereignty is the ability to live your life according to your values.” That is all any people want for themselves. It is all any parent wants for his or her children.
Happy Father’s Day to our governor.
May it be a day for him to celebrate the values that guided him and that he passed on to his children. May it also be a day when he considers how he might help Wabanakis do that same thing.
Joseph Hall is an associate professor in the Department of History at Bates College.