Esther Attean (left), a member of the original TRC Convening Group, now called Maine-Wabanaki REACH, reads concerns during the Basket Prayer Ceremony, held as part of the Seating of the Commission event on Feb. 12, 2013, in Hermon, Maine.
A truth and reconciliation commission (TRC) is a group of people brought together to find out about a specific problem, and the factors that went into creating that problem.
After it first emerged in the 1970s, the TRC process gained wider recognition in the 1990s when Nelson Mandela, Desmond Tutu and others led efforts to help South Africa address the effects of apartheid. Today, the process is widely recognized as an effective way to begin the work of understanding and dealing with difficult, painful events.
Its success relies largely on first-hand accounts to document what happened. This testimony creates more understanding by bringing in many, varied voices. The act of telling, and of having one’s own experience seen and recorded, can also be a vibrant opportunity for healing and change.
This TRC is focused on what has happened to Wabanaki children and families between now and 1978, when the Indian Child Welfare Act (ICWA) was passed. It is specifically centered on the State of Maine’s child welfare practices.
There are three goals:
To find out and write down what happened
To give Wabanaki people a place to share their stories and have a voice
To give the Maine child welfare system suggestions on how it can work better with Wabanaki people
Why have a TRC about Wabanaki people and child welfare?
The United States government has tried many different ways to solve what they called “the Indian problem” - stealing land, killing off entire tribes by war and disease and by taking Indian children away from their families and communities.
In the 1800s, different church groups with the support of the government took Indian children and sent them to boarding schools far away from their communities where they couldn’t speak their own language, wear their own clothes or practice their own religion. They also treated Indian children badly, abusing them physically, emotionally and sexually. Many of these children died. The ones who made it home after years in these schools were not the same as when they left.
In the 1950s, the Bureau of Indian Affairs and the Child Welfare League of America did an experiment where they took hundreds of Indian children from their families to raise them in white homes, thinking it was better for them.
In Maine, Indian children were taken from their families and placed in white foster homes at a higher rate than most other states.
In 1978, the federal government passed a law called the Indian Child Welfare Act that gave Indian children more protection and recognized a child’s tribal citizenship is as important as their family relationship. Maine child welfare has been working with Wabanaki tribes to have an improved relationship and to work better with Wabanaki people. A lot of progress has been made, but there are still some problems. This TRC will identify the problems and make suggestions to help fix these problems.
The Maine Wabanaki-State Child Welfare Truth & Reconciliation Commission seated its five Commissioners in February 2013. Each member brings a unique perspective to the work – but all share the common goals of truth, healing and change.
From the time of its seating, the Commission has two-and-a-half years to hear, record and process what happened between the Maine State child welfare system and the Indigenous peoples of Maine from 1978 to today. History will be included to help give the bigger picture around what took place.
Listening times as well as ceremonial gatherings will take place in each of the five Wabanaki communities, as well as in the non-Wabanaki communities of Maine. There will be chances for all voices to be heard, and for all to participate – even as a supportive “witness” from the greater community.
The experiences will be recorded in ways that best fit the need, and a final report will be issued at the end of the Commission’s time.
Whenever we have to talk about painful and traumatic events, it is difficult.
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.
There is a lot of shame around being involved in the child welfare system and not many people have shared their stories before.
There will also be stories about survival, strength and love.
Several groups are working together on the TRC, including:
Members of the five Wabanaki communities and their governments
Wabanaki individuals living outside of those communities
Members of the non-Wabanaki communities of Maine
Members of Maine-Wabanaki REACH, (formerly the Convening Group)
The five seated Commissioners
Current and former Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS) employees
University of Southern Maine, Muskie School of Public Service
University of Maine
Several organizations focused on social justice
A small, dedicated staff
There are many ways you can support the TRC in your community.
Ways for tribal members to help:
Spread the word! Talk to your family, friends and co-workers about the TRC process; help educate Tribal leaders and community members.
Be a member of the TRC Community Group in your area. There is a group in each Tribal community and one for Wabanaki Health and Wellness in Bangor.