HERMON, Maine, June 14, 2015 – For more than two years, the Maine Wabanaki-State Child Welfare Truth & Reconciliation Commission (TRC) has been examining the truths of Wabanaki experiences with child welfare. On Sunday, nearly 300 people gathered for the TRC’s Closing Ceremony, “Moving Forward with Truth, Healing and Change,” to hear the group’s findings and recommendations at the Morgan Hill Event Center in Hermon.
The ceremony concluded the first truth and reconciliation effort within U.S. territory developed between tribal nations and a state government. The work will be carried on by Maine-Wabanaki REACH, a cross-cultural collaborative that both created the TRC and will be ensuring that the Commission’s recommendations are considered and implemented.
“This was a day of celebration, ceremony, endings and beginnings,” said TRC Executive Director Charlotte Bacon. “We shared not just an overview of our findings and recommendations, but a chance to come together – as Wabanaki and non-Native people – for this powerful and historic process.”
The ceremony contained prayers offered by Commissioners gkisedtanamoogk and Sandy White Hawk. With drumming and singing, an honor song was offered and tissues that contained the tears of statement providers were “given to the sacred fire,” as Commissioner White Hawk described.
The event also included comment, in writing and video, by U.S. legislators; the singing of “Amazing Grace” in Passamaquoddy and English; the showing of “Children of the Dawn,” a short documentary film about the TRC process, directed by Adam Mazo and Ben Pender-Cudlip; a talk about next steps in the work by REACH’s Esther Attean; and a reading of the poem, “Reparation,” written by REACH’s Penthea Burns for the occasion.
Sunday’s Closing Ceremony marked a return to the site where the work officially began on Feb. 12, 2013, with the Seating of the Commissioners: Matt Dunlap, gkisedtanamoogk, White Hawk, Carol Wishcamper and Dr. Gail Werrbach. Eight months before, on June 29, 2012, the five Wabanaki Chiefs and Governor Paul LePage took part in the historic signing of the TRC Mandate at the Maine State Capitol.
The Commission’s central charge was to investigate if Native children in Maine entered foster care at rates that were disproportionate to non-Native children. The TRC was also asked to examine the implementation of the 1978 Indian Child Welfare Act (ICWA), legislation intended to keep tribal children connected to kinship and community.
The investigation, by the numbers:
- Some 159 statements were gathered.
- More than 90 were provided by Wabanaki people: foster parents; elders; tribal child welfare; children formerly in care; incarcerated people; tribal attorneys and judges; and adoptees.
- Members of all four tribes – the Maliseet, Micmac, Passamaquoddy and Penobscot – participated.
- More than 60 statements came from non-Native people: current or former DHHS caseworkers and leaders; attorneys and judges; guardians ad litem; foster and adoptive parents; and service providers.
- The TRC held 13 focus groups with 78 participants.
- Numerous informational interviews were also conducted with individuals ranging from the Chief Justice of Maine to nuns and priests who served Wabanaki communities.
- Native children in Maine are 5.1 times more likely to enter foster care than non-Native children.
- Federal reviews in 2006 and 2009 indicate that up to 53 percent of Native children at intake do not have their Native ancestry verified, meaning that ICWA-eligible children are in the state system but their numbers are unknown.
- The TRC held these findings within a web of root causes that are often ignored or remain invisible to much of the culture; not to name these is to run the risk of perpetuating harms.
- The TRC found that significant institutional and public racism toward Wabanaki people continues to exist.
- The state has yet to reckon with the impact of historical trauma, also known as intergenerational trauma, and how that has affected Wabanaki people. Nonetheless, the TRC also found that Wabanaki families are resilient and that connection to culture and traditional practices offer a perhaps unparalleled source of strength.
- Contested issues of sovereignty and jurisdiction continue to beset tribal-state relations, which can make the administration of child welfare far more difficult.
- The TRC contends that these findings constitute cultural genocide, with the word genocide seen within the definition of the 1948 United Nations Convention on Genocide, Article 2, Sections b and e: “Causing serious bodily or mental harm” to the group and “Forcibly transferring members of the group to another group.”
Recommendations include the need to:
- Respect tribal sovereignty and commit to resolve and uphold federal, state and tribal jurisdictions and protocols at both state and local levels.
- Honor Wabanaki choices to support healing as the tribes see fit and celebrate the cultural resurgence of the tribes within the Wabanaki confederacy so that both individuals and communities may be strengthened.
- Develop DHHS, 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.
Read the full TRC Report, “Beyond the Mandate: Continuing the Conversation,” on the TRC website at mainewabanakitrc.org/report.
The Maine Wabanaki-State Child Welfare Truth & Reconciliation Commission (TRC) examined truths of Wabanaki experiences with child welfare to promote healing and change. It is the nation’s first TRC to address child welfare and Native people.