The Wabanaki is both the People and the Place of First Light. Collectively they are the tribes: Maliseet, Mi’kmaq, Passamaquoddy, and Penobscot. The “Place of First Light”—where they were the first people—is currently occupied by the eastern most part of the United States and part of the Canadian Maritimes.
Native children have been forcibly removed from their tribes by white people as long as white people have been in what are now called the Americas. That is over 500 years of specific, racially-targeted removal of children from their families. A centuries-long genocide.
This is not the space to review those 528 years of history. For our purposes, we’ll start in Maine, in 1999, when the federal government threatened to withhold funding from the state department of health and human services unless its social workers came into compliance with ICWA—the Indian Child Welfare Act, whose intended purpose was to stop the “wholesale separation of Indian children from their families.” Passed in 1978, ICWA is considered a gold-standard of child welfare, and continues to direct states to actively work to keep Native children with their Native family and tribe.
Yet twenty years after ICWA passed, it had become clear that the state of Maine had never bothered to implement it at all. What happened next would lead to the formation of the Maine-Wabanaki Child Welfare Truth and Reconciliation Commission. And in turn, that Commission, and its 2015 report, would not only shift Maine’s child welfare system’s relationship with tribes and Native children, but it would have a transformational impact on the people—both white and Native.
This is a story of the transformational power of telling and listening to the truth, for all people.
Genocide is defined as “any of the following acts committed with intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious group, as such: killing members of the group; causing serious bodily or mental harm to members of the group; deliberately inflicting on the group conditions of life calculated to bring about its physical destruction in whole or in part; imposing measures intended to prevent births within the group; [and] forcibly transferring children of the group to another group.”
In 1999, Maine had the highest rate of Indian child removal of any state in the nation, says Denise Altvater (Passamaquoddy), a leader in Maine-Wabanaki REACH(Restoration, Engagement, Advocacy, Change, Healing) who assisted in the creation of the Maine-Wabanaki Child Welfare Truth and Reconciliation Commission.
The Native children at the time, and for decades prior and since, were being placed in white foster homes. In the state’s effort to come into ICWA compliance—and save their funding—a group was formed to train the state’s social workers on ICWA. But the relationship between the Wabanaki and the state social workers was so badly damaged, it was difficult for the two groups to work together at all.
But they decided, collectively, to keep going anyway: if things were going to change, they were going to have to work together. And, “They realized that they needed this whole truth telling side,” says Maria Girouard (Penobscot), Executive Director of Maine-Wabanaki REACH.
That meant going beyond simple ICWA trainings. White social workers were going to have to listen to the truth of what their child welfare policies had done to the Wabanaki people. And the Wabanaki people needed to heal.
The group—white state social workers and tribal members alike—wanted to do that, despite heightened concern all around: Native people worried that telling their truths might inspire people to drink or use drugs or even commit suicide. The response from Native people in the group, including Altvater? “They’re already doing that. Maybe this will help them start to heal,” says Altvater, who also serves as a REACH board member and works for the American Friends Service Committee, an organization that has funded her work for nearly 30 years.
White state workers were worried too: Why open a can of worms? What if the state is found liable, and is unable to make financial reparations? But that proved to be a flimsy argument: The Commission was not a court of law, no one was being sued, and the tribes weren’t asking for reparations anyway—although they did not specifically say reparations could not happen. The priority was truth and healing.
In 2012, the group formed a truth commission, with the full support of then-Gov. Paul LePage. The mandate creating the Maine-Wabanaki Child Welfare Truth and Reconciliation Commission was signed in a ceremony by the five tribal chiefs and the governor himself.
And then the Commission, made up of three white people, including Secretary of State Matthew Dunlap, and two Native people, Sandy White Hawk (Sicangu Lakota) and gkisedtanamoogk (Wampanoag) started their journey with a sacred fire. Then they spent a year preparing to go into tribal communities and researching other truth and reconciliation commissions.
Meanwhile, REACH worked with tribal communities, preparing those who wanted to speak their truths to do so: the group facilitated talking circles and helped people determine the best ways to tell their stories, and the people were given options, including to write their stories down or have someone else tell their story for them. REACH also worked to make sure the Native people’s well-being was supported through the process.
Then, the Commission went to the tribes, and listened.
The first person to share their story with the Commission was Altvater.
In the mid-1960s, when Altvater was seven, she and five of her sisters lived with their mother, isolated in rural, far northeastern Maine—almost in New Brunswick, a half hour drive from the reservation. There was no electricity, no plumbing, no running water, and the house they lived in was more of a one-room shack. The walls weren’t finished, and she slept in the attic. Her mother had no car, but still needed to find a way to get to the Indian Agent on the Rez, to beg for the food and vouchers they needed. Her mother was at the Indian Agent one day, when white people in a station wagon pulled up in front of her house, put all of their belongings in garbage bags, and told her and her sisters they were going to live in a different place.
For Altvater, this was extremely traumatic. “One of the things we’ve found in our research is it didn’t matter if you were put in a good home or a bad home, the trauma was in the taking,” she says.
She was placed in a white foster home in central Maine where she was tortured, starved, raped, and physically abused. She was called names, and told not to speak of being Native. When she and her sisters told the state workers what was happening, they were beaten by their foster parents, because the workers didn’t believe them and had, rather than remove the sisters from the abusive environment, told the abusive foster parents what the children had said. The abuse they endured for telling can best be described as torture.
She lived there for four years.
The state eventually removed her and her sisters from the home, and split the children up into several different foster homes, each with white foster parents. At 14, she was reunited with her mother. Not long after, she was raped by one of her mother’s friends.
“That was the point where I gave up on life,” she says. “I quit high school, started drinking, made a mess of my life, got pregnant at 16, had three kids, worked.” The abuse she had suffered throughout her childhood was so great that Altvater says she “did not know how to parent… I didn’t have the natural connection of affection and love.”
The abuse she and her family suffered carried on. Two of Altvater’s sisters have died, the oldest at age 42 from diabetes and lack of health care, and another sister died by suicide.
Altvater thought she was alone in her experience until the Maine-Wabanaki Truth and Reconciliation Commission exposed that she wasn’t alone—and that many others in the Wabanaki community had also suffered through a vicious foster care system, too.
It just wasn’t something people talked about, she says. And it was hard when she became the first person to tell her story to the Maine Wabanaki Child Welfare Truth and Reconciliation Commission.
Altvater went to the talking circle with the Commission in attendance, in her home community with her family there, and she saw her sister across the room. She broke down. “We were always hungry in the foster home, and if you touched food, you’d not eat for 24 hours,” she explains. Altvater had eaten a banana, and when the foster mother came to the girls’ room to find out who ate the banana, Altvater heard her coming and hid the peel under her sister’s bed. Her sister was severely punished and starved as a result. “And I was sitting there looking at her, and I apologized. She took the blame.” Altvater broke down further. She’d told the story hundreds of times, but this time it was different.
Secretary of State and Truth and Reconciliation Commissioner Matt Dunlap was in the room at that time, listening to Altvater tell her story, he recalls to Native News Online, emotional from the memory. “They have no running water. The first impetus was always to remove [the children] from the home,” and he clearly saw how wretched the punishment, for the supposed crime of poverty, really was. He recalls her saying, ‘I got worried I wouldn’t know how to find my way home,’ when she was taken. “Yet, here was Altvater, all these years later, wracked with guilt for what she had done to her sister.” Dunlap says he asked himself, in that moment, ‘What’s my role here?’
“And I learned in that moment, as Secretary of State, there’s absolutely no way that I can divorce myself from the actions of any of my predecessors. I am the government,” Dunlap explains. “If I own that. I have the power to stop it.”
As Dunlap bore witness to more and more stories, and the more people spoke to the Commission, the more people told him that the more often they told their story, the less of an impact it had on them. “Our job was to bear witness to that, and tell them it wasn’t their fault,” he notes. “We had 20 Native nations [in Maine],” Dunlap adds. There are four left. The process of sitting with that and facing those facts, and coming to terms with what happened, and what continues to happen, he says, changed everything.
When the the Commission released its report in 2015, it was horrifying: the state was found to have committed a cultural genocide. The forceful, unremorseful removal of Wabanaki children from their families and communities had erased culture, language, and tribal and familial ties and birthrights. It could not be denied.
“We did feel strongly that we could not ignore the finding or gloss over it, especially given my role as a state official,” says Dunlap, recalling that then-Gov. LePage had asked him to resign when he first joined the Commission. “‘You have a fiduciary responsibility to the state of Maine’ he told me,” Dunlap recalls. LePage’s concerns, he says, revolved around the potential demand the state pay reparations. Dunlap says he countered: You don’t need a truth commission to fund reparations.
The Commissioner did not resign.
In addition to the act of cultural genocide, the report found that Wabanaki children in Maine had been placed in foster care at over five times the rate of non-Native children, from 2002-2015. In some years, a child’s Native background wasn’t even noted. The report highlighted the racism “still at work in state institutions and the public,” the “ongoing impact of historical trauma” and the “differing interpretations of tribal sovereignty and jurisdiction that make encounters between the tribes and the state contentious.”
The report issued several recommendations, the first being to respect tribal sovereignty. Other recommendations included creating foster homes in Native communities and developing “DHHS [Department of Health and Human Services] legal and judicial trainings that go beyond the basics of checklists and toolkits to recognize bias and build cultural awareness at all levels of leadership and accountability in ways that frame ICWA within historical context.” It also recommends the support of Wabanaki choices when it comes to healing and cultural resurgence, and recommends ICWA policy compliance be cultivated with the counsel of the tribes.
Individual policy makers, and the state as a system, reacted to the report with a sort of passive aggressiveness, ignoring it and moving on with their business, and worried about what it was going to open up, says Esther Anne (Passamaquoddy), a board member of REACH.
But for Maine Wabanaki Child Welfare Truth and Reconciliation Commissioner and University of Maine School of Social Work Chair Gail Werrbach, who is white, it was meaningful, both personally and in her professional work. “What we are communicating is a validation of their truth,” says Werrbach. “And that had never been done before. It felt hopeful. And it felt humbling. For me it was just something that as a social worker, I really needed to do, that was long past needing to be done.”
It was also the beginning of a shift that was to come—and likely not what the state expected.
For Altvater, the report should have said the state committed “genocide” not “cultural genocide.” “Killing us, displacing us, trying to get us assimilated… putting us on reservations thinking we would disappear”—that’s genocide, she says.
Today, Altvater talks about what she went through, freely. She knows now it wasn’t her fault, and she’s been able to begin healing the cycle of abuse and violence within her own family.
“I did a lot of work around myself, did a lot of healing, and I started making amends to my family,” says Altvater. “I remember going to my son’s house, and I walked in to him standing in the living room in the dark—no electricity, no food, smoking a cigarette, and it hit me hard. I said, ‘honey, I know growing up all the things I did to hurt you—did I physically abuse you? And he said, ‘How can you not remember?’ For a long long time, he just talked and talked and cried like a little baby. I tried to keep it together. I wanted him to be heard. I said, ‘Honey, there is nothing in this world I can do to make up for what I did to you. He said: ‘You can be my mom. I need my mom.’ And that started a relationship with him and I.”
This version of truth and reconciliation within her own family is important to understand and can heal future generations of family, Altvater says. “He would have spent his life wondering why he did the things he did. I’ve done a lot of that work with my children and grandchildren and with my husband.”
“After a few years, I came to the realization I am who I am supposed to be right now,” Altvater continues. “I have to accept what I did, and that it wasn’t all my fault. And find forgiveness for my mom.” Altvater says she did what she did to deal with the trauma she’d suffered, and then it shifted to healing and helping her family and community to heal. “I can heal and not forgive some of what was done to me. I can’t and I don’t want to [forgive everything]. And I don’t feel like I have to. But I need to take responsibility for my role as an adult for my actions and try to make amends for those.”
She adds: “I truly believe we all have a need to be heard.”
“Our society is moving further and further away from [hearing people],” says Girouard. “How often do we just sit, listen, and let people go through the process?”
In that spirit, despite the Commission disbanding after the report was made five years ago, Wabanaki continue to share their experiences of surviving Maine’s child welfare system.
Maine-Wabanaki REACH works to support people in telling their story, sharing their story, and if they so choose, archiving their story at Bowdoin College, where the Commission archive lives. People who are willing to share have complete control over the format their story takes—oral recording, written statement, through a friend on their behalf—and also have the power to amend, add to, or remove their story from the archives as time goes on. REACH is with them every step of the way.
Continuing to talk about this history was important to helping people understand both the disproportionate rate of Wabanaki children removed from tribes and the peoples’ own history. “Not all Native people understand the complexities of our histories either,” Girouard says. One of the important realizations that came from the Commission, she explains, was for Native people to realize that “it wasn’t our fault. Things were done to us in our past. Understanding that historic trauma, so that we carry forward.”
Since the truth and reconciliation commission, tribal communities are talking more about the need for healing. The report, says Girouard, “allowed us to recognize the historical trauma, how it affects us today, new things to consider, and [helps with] dealing with our own wellness as a tribal community.” Native families, like in Altvater’s example, have changed how they interact, she notes.
“Families are healing on their own now,” adds Altvater. “It has been real private and powerful on its own. And the community is healing by having talking circles, groups, and activities in the groups to bring people together.”
Today, five years after the Commission’s report was released, this healing continues, at the personal, tribal community and state level.
REACH continues to carry on a great deal of wellness work, supporting tribes and tribal members as they work through their trauma and truths, to make sure people know how to take care of themselves, and that the Commission’s recommendations are implemented. Talking circles go on, as does the awareness that what happens when a Native child is taken and how that act affects the lives of, when they are grown, the child’s children and their grandchildren—multiple generations of people. They also work around restoring and helping traditional practices to flourish.
“There’s been tangible changes in child welfare that have begun to be implemented,” says Penthea Burns, one of the early conveners of the ICWA training group from the University of Southern Maine and now on the board of Maine Wabanaki REACH, including the addition of tribal foster homes and a shift to actually working to keep Native children with their families and tribes.
Today, 46 percent of all children in foster care are living in kinship care, notes Jackie Farwell, communications director for Maine’s Department of Health and Human Services. According to documents provided by Farwell, the number of Native children entering DHHS custody from 2000-2018 was highest in 2018. That was also a peak year for all children entering DHHS custody.
These days, says Dunlap, the Department of Health and Human Services approaches these issues much differently. “Tribes have better control” of child welfare and “the state has better understanding” of a tribe’s role, he explains.
While it’s hard to measure how state agencies change in response to something as personally transformative as what the truth and reconciliation commission did, “it’s more the stories that emerged from the community,” and how the awareness of the problem has shifted action among individual state and social workers, says Burns.
“The good news is, in terms of child welfare, [with new state leadership and the formation of new groups] they’ve continued to revamp the training for all of the state and child welfare workers,” Werrbach adds.
“There’s ongoing work that came out of this to educate people who are getting involved with Maine child welfare,” says Girouard. “There is more of an effort to educate them so the problem doesn’t perpetuate into the future.” Today, she notes, there is a group of child welfare workers who meet regularly as peer support for each other, made up of state and tribal child welfare workers, and that has increased the conversation into a co-management style.
The recruitment and training of social workers has changed too, and more Native Americans are being recruited to go into social work. And there is work in the state’s own departments, outside health and human services, to improve tribal relations, Dunlap says.
REACH facilitates much of this shift, stretching across Indian Country and Maine state agencies and white communities, working with state workers, with churches, with land conservation programs, working to get more tribal people involved in ICWA, more tribal people to be expert witnesses, to be foster parents, and to keep children in the community. REACH is also mobilizing people to be part of turning that cumbersome bureaucratic barge, engaging people from different entities.
Their work has also carried over into the prison system, as many of those incarcerated today went through the state’s child welfare system. REACH is working with inmates, supporting them while they’re there and with reintegration, and educating tribal communities about mass incarceration and restorative justice.
Still, despite clear shifts within the people of the system, “there’s a lot of room for improvement. There are issues in the state legislature,” Girouard says. “When you’re trying to make systemic changes, it’s wrapped up in the legalese of the mind. We want people thinking and feeling with their heart.”
That is the center of the truth, and that is what she believes makes lasting change: when people are heard and the heart connection is made, the bigger shift comes from there.
But there are still issues in Maine. Land and water rights continue to be incendiary topics. “I feel a need for more truth commissions,” says Girouard, who would like to see one specifically deal with tribal-state relations, and another truth-telling about the Maine Indian Land Claims Settlement Act of 1980 and how it’s felt today.
The answer to healing and the future is “in what we already know,” says Esther Anne (Passamaquoddy), a REACH board member. “Reactivating our wellness and our Indigenous ways and food sovereignty, doing healing circles… support ceremonies.” The restoration of traditional practices are healing the tribal members too, she notes, all have the power to heal and transform within tribes.
REACH sees truth and reconciliation as “a start to improving our relationships between tribes and colonizers and ancestors of the colonizers. Anything we can do towards truth, healing and change is a step in the right direction,” Girouard says.
“The work white people have to do, they have to do it,” says Burns. “The work Wabanaki people have to do, they get to do it without white people sticking our noses in that. It’s hard to quantify and put into data, and I wonder if that’s part of the change: we’re doing it person-to-person, community-to-community, and not in a data report sort of way—even though funders and editors ask for it. We have to follow the truth to where it takes us.”
Girouard knows they can’t keep upholding the status quo, because “the colonialists were hundreds of years ago.” That way of thinking, she says, is “getting old.”
“I think one of the biggest things is naming the genocide,” says Girouard. “Owning that history. We can’t pretend it didn’t exist. We’re tripping over it all the time.”
As she pushes forward in her work with REACH, it’s clear that truth and healing are a part of the new present—and future.