TRC Commissioners
Tom Reynolds/Maine-Wabanaki REACH
Following the Closing Ceremony, TRC Commissioners, from left, gkisedtanamoogk, Matt Dunlap and Sandy White Hawk discuss their experiences.

Truth & Reconciliation Commission’s Work Ends With a Path Forward

Gale Courey Toensing

Denise Yarmal Altvater, a member of the Passamaquoddy Tribe at Sipayik (Pleasant Point, Maine) stepped onto the pages of history four years ago when she talked at a public ceremony about the abuse she and her four sisters suffered as Indian children in foster care in Maine.

At that ceremony, which took place at the Penobscot Indian Nation’s Sockalexis Bingo Palace on Indian Island on May 24, 2011, Altvater, along with the chiefs of the Wabanaki nations (the Houlton Band of Maliseet Indians, the Aroostook Band of Micmac Indians, the Passamaquoddy Tribe at Indian Township and Sipayik, and the Penobscot Indian Nation) and Maine Gov. Paul LePage signed a Declaration of Intent to Create a Maine/Wabanaki Truth and Reconciliation Process to heal the past and create the best possible child-welfare system for Wabanaki children.

RELATED: Wabanaki, State of Maine, Team Up to Stop Abuse of Indian Foster Children

Now, four years later the Maine Wabanaki-State Child Welfare Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) that was convened as part of the process has completed its work and issued its final report.

On Sunday, June 14 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, Maine.

This was a day of celebration, ceremony, endings and beginnings,” TRC Executive Director Charlotte Bacon said. “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 five-member TRC was charged to investigate if Native children in Maine entered foster care at rates that were disproportionate to non-Native children. Commissioners were 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.

Members of TRC and REACH gather for a group photo following the Closing Ceremony. Pictured, from left, are TRC staff members Maureen Harris and Erika Bjorum, holding her daughter; REACH Community Organizers Tom Reynolds and Barbara Kates; TRC staff member Rachel George; TRC Commissioner gkisedtanamoogk; REACH Co-Director Penthea Burns; REACH Co-Director Esther Attean; TRC Commissioners Dr. Gail Werrbach and Sandy White Hawk; TRC Executive Director Charlotte Bacon; and TRC Commissioners Matt Dunlap and Carol Wischamper. (Jenni Parmalee/Sheltering Tree)

In the 78-page report, Beyond the Mandate: Continuing the Conversation, commissioners found:

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.

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,” the commissioners wrote.

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.’”

Lauren Tomah Stevens (left) sings “Amazing Grace” in Passamaquoddy and English, accompanied by Allen Sockabasin, Zoosap Sockabasin and Noah Tomah. (Tom Reynolds/Maine-Wabanaki REACH)

The first of the TRC’s three recommendations—“Respect tribal sovereignty and commit to resolve and uphold federal, state and tribal jurisdictions and protocols at both state and local levels”—came as no surprise to Jamie Bissonette, the chair of the Maine Indian Tribal-State Commission (MITSC).

“No, I am not surprised, I expected the report to recommend the State respect the Tribes’ sovereignty,” Bissonette said. Respect of the tribes' sovereignty is the cornerstone for good tribal state relations and the foundation for building mutually beneficial solutions.”

Several reports—the latest published last year by the MITSC have said that a deep-seated and enduring anti-Indian racism and a lack of acknowledgement of—let alone respect for—tribal sovereignty are the driving force behind the long-running and contentious tribal-state relationship. That relationship came to a head last month when the Penobscot Indian Nation and the Passamaquoddy Tribe permanently withdrew their representatives from the Maine legislature, ending almost two centuries of participation in the state’s political process.

RELATED: Maine Tribes Withdraw Legislative Reps in Historic Break with State

RELATED: ‘Racism Is Central’ to Tribal Conflict with Maine, Says Report

RELATED: ‘Honor’ Settlement Act By Protecting Sovereignty

RELATED: At Loggerheads

The TRC’s other two recommendations are to:

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.

The Maine Wabanaki-State Child Welfare Truth and Reconciliation Commission was 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 its recommendations are considered and implemented.

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