I remember reading, over the years, reports of the Truth and Reconciliation project in South Africa, which allowed black South Africans to finally speak out about the horrific treatment they received for so long from the white minority that descended upon their country and proceeded to reduce them to something approaching captives in their own land. It was painful to read their testimony to the incredible injustice and inhumane treatment meted out by the apartheid government.
I felt that same kind of pain and immense sadness earlier this month when I had the opportunity to attend the closing ceremony for the Truth and Reconciliation project carried out to gather the stories of tragic mistreatment of the Wabanaki people of Maine pretty much since the time white men first landed on these shores.
The investigators focused mainly on the fate native children suffered at the hands of imperialistic, Christian invaders. Having lived here for more than 10 years, I had a general sense of the mistreatment of native people, the racism and injustice that has been part and parcel of their lives for so long. But I was pierced to the heart by the words of the presenters, who talked of cultural genocide and torture inflicted on the Wabanaki people by white interlopers.
As in many other parts of this nation, the white men carried out the cultural genocide by taking native children from their families, sometimes putting them in special Indian schools or simply parking them with foster families (where they were the last children to be adopted, if they were adopted at all), any place that would help wipe out their connection to their own people, their own language, their own culture, their own lives.
One woman actually referred to her treatment and the treatment of other Wabanaki children by their white overlords as torture. It was terrible to hear, and even more terrible to know that my white ancestors endorsed the policies that brought so much suffering to the true native inhabitants of this continent.
The speakers closed with two points: as in South Africa, simply gathering the awful stories and exposing them to the bright light of scrutiny brought some relief to these victims, but the commission’s final report also concludes that the mistreatment and injustice meted out to native people in Maine back then continues today.
One example of that is the fact that Passamaquoddy and Penobscot representatives recently walked out of the state Legislature, accusing Maine and its governor of continuing to relate to native people in dishonest and disrespectful ways.
There were vows all around during the ceremony earlier this month to keep pushing to accord proper respect and sovereignty to the Wabanaki and all native people of Maine and North America. I hope that comes to pass. It is long past due.
Mark Kelley is the former director of journalism at the New England School of Communications in Bangor.