Denise Alvater signs the Memo of Intent as other signatories look on. From the right are Penobsocit Chief Kirk Francis, Maine Gov. Paul LePage, Passamaquoddy Gov. Clayton Cleaves of Sipayik, and Passamaquoddy Gov. Joe Socobasin of Indian Township. (Photo by Gale Courey Toensing)

Wabanaki-Maine Panel Seeks Nominations for Truth and Reconciliation Commission

Gale Courey Toensing
9/12/12

A selection panel empowered by the Wabanaki tribal governments and the Maine state government is seeking nominations for the Wabanaki-State Child Welfare Truth and Reconciliation Commission.

The panel has been tasked to select five commissioners to serve on the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) for the expected three-year lifespan of the commission. “The selection panel seeks individuals of recognized integrity, empathy, stature and respect with a demonstrated commitment to the values of truth, reconciliation, equity, and justice,” Carolyn Morrison, the TRC’s interim director said in a media release.

The TRC is a first-of-its-kind partnership in the United States between tribal and state governments to deal with the trauma of a negligent and brutal government child welfare system that separated Indian children from their families and communities. In May 2011, the chiefs of the Penobscot Indian Nation, the Passamaquoddy Tribe, the Houlton Band of Maliseet Indians, and the Aroostook Band of Micmacs and Maine Gov. Paul LePage signed a Declaration of Intent to Create a Maine/Wabanaki Truth and Reconciliation Process that will heal the past and create the best possible child-welfare system for Wabanaki children. The declaration promised that a Truth and Reconciliation Commission would be convened as part of the process.

Maine’s child welfare system derived from a policy aimed at assimilating Indians into the dominant society, a process that has its roots in the federal boarding-school program defined by the slogan, “Kill the Indian to save the man.” In Maine, Native children were removed from their homes and tribes almost 20 times more frequently than other children placed in foster care. The truth and reconciliation process will encourage Wabanaki people to come forward and share their childhood stories of abuse and neglect. The idea is to acknowledge the wrongdoings in order to work toward healing and reconciliation, reparations and institutional reform to ensure that the abuse and neglect never happen again.

“We are keenly aware of both the privilege and deep responsibility inherent in undertaking this TRC process and the possibilities of building systems of mutual respect,” Morrison told Indian Country Today Media Network. Morrison, who is of Muskogean descent, said Indian child welfare “is a passion of mine.” She has worked in the field for years both nationally and in Maine with groups who organized the effort leading up to the creation of the TRC.

The idea for the Tribal-State TRC originated within a Truth and Reconciliation Convening Group, individuals representing Maine Tribal Child Welfare, Maine State Department of Health and Human Services Office of Child and Family Services, and staff from the Muskie School of Public Service, American Friends Service Committee, and Wabanaki Health and Wellness. Prior to the formation of the Convening Group, Wabanaki and State representatives had been collaborating for years, achieving substantial progress with the collective goal 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 1978 Indian Child Welfare Act (ICWA) in a way that is consistent with the law and promotes healing.

The parties held a public ceremony in June to sign a mandate creating the TRC. “I am happy we are able to take this next step to continue this important effort,” LePage said at the signing. “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 commission will examine cases held in state court from the 1978 passage of the Indian Child Welfare Act to signing of the mandate, Morrison said. But cases that were not heard in court may also be included. “There’s not going to be any clear lines around that because there’s always going to be stories about the boarding schools and adoptions and other things that have happened that are going to weave in. The way the mandate reads, it’s not saying they can’t be heard but they need to narrow the focus,” Morrison said.

Once the commission members are seated, they will decide how the information will be gathered, presented, and archived, Morrison said. The conceptual plan is for each of the tribal communities to have a working group that will help determine the process. “Each tribal community gets to decide for itself how the testimonies will be taken so it doesn’t necessarily have to be the same,” Morrison said. “When I watch TRC’s on television I see people standing at a lectern talking to people on a stage where the commissioners are seated – that may work but I think tribal communities may choose to do it more talking circle-style or it may be that people don’t feel comfortable doing that publicly. It will be up to each group to decide what’s the best way for that to happen in their community.”

Each year the commissioners will spend a week in two communities taking testimony. There will also be a lot of behind the scene document research, Morrison said. The commissioners will decide how the research will be managed and archived. Since the commission is not funded by the state or tribal governments part of Morrison’s job as interim director is to raise funds for the commission’s work. “I’m part of a group of people who’ve been working on this for a while and we have a few grant proposals that we’re getting ready to turn in to some of the philanthropic foundations. Another organization has already agreed to help us. There seems to be a fair amount of interest because it’s something new. I’m very hopeful that we’ll be able to (raise the funds),” Morrison said.

The Wabanaki tribal governments, which struggle to provide services to their citizens in one of the poorest states in the country, can’t kick in money, but have offered in-kind services, such as staff time for the research and space for meetings.

Nominations for the commissioners must be received by October 1, 2012, and may be submitted on the TRC website. Questions about the TRC nominations process or the TRC in general can be directed to Morrison at (207) 896-3042 or carolyn.morrisontrc@gmail.com.

Donations to the TRC can be sent by checks made out to the Maine Indian Tribal-State Commission, P.O. Box 241, Stillwater, Maine 04489, with a note in the memo line that the funds are for the TRC.

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