The nation’s first TRC to address child welfare and Native people
Maine Wabanaki TRC horizontal logo

Wabanaki, State sign first-in-nation TRC mandate for Native people, child welfare

Signing of TRC Mandate photo

Photo courtesy of Seven Eagles Media Productions

AUGUSTA, Maine, State Capitol, Hall of Flags – June 29, 2012 – Five Wabanaki Chiefs and Governor Paul LePage signed a Mandate document commencing the Maine Wabanaki-State Child Welfare Truth and Reconciliation Commission process involving a collaborative effort to examine what has happened, what is happening, and what needs to happen regarding Maine child welfare practices affecting Wabanaki people.

The public signing ceremony, which took place at the Hall of Flags in the State Capitol, represents a historic agreement between Wabanaki Tribal Governments and the State of Maine to uncover and acknowledge the truth, create opportunities to heal and learn from the truth, and collaborate to operate the best child welfare system possible for Wabanaki children, a goal shared by all the signatories to the Mandate.

Governor LePage declared, “I am happy we are able to take this next step to continue this important effort. I see this Commission as a critical step to improve relations between the State and the Tribes. As Governor, I believe my administration’s relations with the Tribes have always been good. Repairing damage from prior administrations is a gesture that is important to me.”

The Maine Wabanaki-State Child Welfare Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) Process represents the first truth and reconciliation effort within US territory that has been collaboratively developed between Indian nations and a state government. The idea for the Tribal-State TRC originated within a Truth and Reconciliation Convening Group, individuals representing Maine Tribal Child Welfare, Maine State DHHS Office of Child and Family Services, and staff from the Muskie School of Public Service, American Friends Service Committee, and Wabanaki Mental Health Associates. Last year all five Wabanaki Tribal Governments and Governor LePage signed the Declaration of Intent to undertake the TRC. Today’s signing ceremony fulfills that May 24, 2011, commitment.

Chief Kirk Francis stated, “The TRC process stands out as a model of collaboration that can be replicated not only in other areas of Wabanaki-Maine relations, but between tribes and states across the country that are dealing with ICWA issues. One of the most distinct aspects of this initiative is that there is no shame and blame, but just people from the Tribes and the State who are committed to making sure this never happens again.”

Wabanaki and State representatives have been collaborating for more than a decade, which has and will continue to improve the child welfare system for Wabanaki children. In spite of this progress, Maine’s child welfare history continues to impact Wabanaki children and families today. The governments have come to realize that they must unearth the story of Wabanaki people’s experiences in order to fully uphold the spirit, letter and intent of the Indian Child Welfare Act (ICWA) in a way that is consistent with the law and promotes healing.

Chief Brenda Commander of the Houlton Band of Maliseet Indians affirmed, “As the Chief of the Houlton Band of Maliseet Indians, a mother, and a grandmother, I know the incredible importance of our children. At one time, 16% of all Maliseet children were in State custody. The disproportionate taking of our children threatened the survival of our Tribe. I am pleased that the State of Maine stands ready to acknowledge the mistakes of the past and move forward on a new path guided by systems reform and best practices for our children.”

The impetus for the TRC comprises three key purposes:

    1) to create a common understanding between the Wabanaki and the State of Maine concerning what happened and is happening to Wabanaki children in the child welfare system;
    2) to act on the information revealed during the TRC to implement systems change to improve the system and to better support the children and families served; and
    3) to promote healing both among Wabanaki children and their families and the people who administered a widely acknowledged less than ideal system.

Chief Richard Getchell of the Aroostook Band of Micmacs cited the impact of boarding schools on the Micmac People. “Many of our people survived the Canadian and American boarding school system. The trauma that those children, who are now the elders of our Tribe, grandmothers and grandfathers, have unwittingly passed down through the generations needs to be acknowledged so we can heal as individuals, families and as a Tribe. This Truth and Reconciliation Commission process is crucial to that healing. We must give our people the opportunity to share their experiences, to bring voice to all that has been suppressed and repressed for far too many years.”

Chief Joseph Socobasin of the Passamaquoddy Tribe at Motahkmikuk added, “By unearthing and acknowledging the truth, we are able to deal with the pain and heal from the trauma. The past informs the future and once Wabanaki and State citizens are able to share their experiences and tell their stories, we can reconcile the past with the present to make a better future. I look forward to appointing a commission member from Indian Township and participating in the final outcome of the TRC goals and objectives.”

In 1978, the U.S. Congress passed the Indian Child Welfare Act (ICWA), which codified higher standards of protection for the rights of Native children, their families and their Tribal communities. Within the ICWA, Congress stated that, “No resource is more vital to the continued existence and integrity of Indian tribes than their children” and that “Child welfare agencies had failed to recognize the essential tribal relations of Indian people and the culture and social standards prevailing in Indian communities and families” (25 U.S.C.& 1901).

Chief Reuben Clayton Cleaves of the Passamaquoddy Tribe at Sipayik concluded, “Today’s event is another step in the right direction for recovery and a perfect example of ‘government-to-government relations.’ In the Passamaquoddy language, one word summarizes this special event – WILIPOMAWSAWKON. I want to thank all tribal members for making this special event possible. Thank you to the Maine Indian Tribal-State Commission and a special thanks to State of Maine Governor Mr. Paul LePage for the support you have given to Wabanaki Tribes since the beginning of this special and historical endeavor.”

All the signatories to the Mandate thanked the Andrus Family Fund for its financial support for the Convening Group, creating support for Wabanaki communities, and funding positions that will staff the Selection Panel and initial start-up phase of the TRC. Next steps will include the seating of a 13-member Selection Panel who will choose the five TRC Commissioners, selecting the members of the TRC, the TRC organizing itself, and the Commission securing additional funding. Throughout the process Wabanaki Community Groups led by community members will provide support and a local point of contact for all Wabanaki people who become involved in the TRC process.

For more information:
Evan Beal, Office of Governor LePage (207) 287-5086
Esther Attean, Muskie School of Public Service (c) (207) 615-3189
John Dieffenbacher-Krall, MITSC (207) 817-3799 (c) (207) 944-8376

Formed by a historic agreement between Wabanaki Tribal Governments and the State of Maine, the Maine Wabanaki-State Child Welfare Truth & Reconciliation Commission was tasked with uncovering and acknowledging the truth about what happened to Wabanaki children and families involved with the Maine Child Welfare system; creating opportunities to heal and learn from the truth; and collaborating to operate the best child welfare system possible for Wabanaki children.