"Stewardship of the Earth," a collaboration between James E. Francis and Arla Patch. Learn more.
“Stewardship of the Earth,” a collaboration between James E. Francis and Arla Patch. See the full print and learn more.

Truth, Healing, and Reconciliation in Maine

On May 24, 2011, a Declaration of Intent was signed at Indian Island, Maine, which commenced the implementation of the Maine Wabanaki-State Child Welfare Truth and Reconciliation Commission, the result of a precedent-setting collaboration between Wabanaki Indians and the State of Maine. Maine peoples are experiencing a challenging journey as they come to know and to acknowledge the history of violence, racism, cultural genocide, and abuse of Wabanaki children and adults in the state of Maine.

There are three purposes of the work of the truth commission: to work for truth by documenting what happened to Wabanaki peoples involved in the state child welfare system; to work for healing by giving Wabanaki people, especially, a chance to share their stories; and to work for change by providing recommendations for best child welfare practices with Wabanaki people.

This is a story of how we—the four of us, along with many others—have come to work in support of the Maine Wabanaki-State Child Welfare Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC).

Denise Yarmal Altvater

dyaMy mother wasn’t home when Maine Department of Health and Human Services workers arrived at our house on our rural Passamaquoddy reservation at Pleasant Point. They grabbed me and my five sisters; threw our clothes into garbage bags; packed us all into two station wagons; and drove us away, mile after mile, into unknown territory. No one explained what was happening.

It was the late 1960s, and my sisters and I would spend the next four years of our lives in a foster care nightmare. We were raped; deprived of food; and locked in a cold basement, night after night with rats. We were made to stay in urine-soaked beds for 24 hours at a time, and to kneel on broom handles as punishment. When we tried to explain what was happening, the social workers didn’t believe us, and the brutality increased.

Finally, after four years, when I was 11, we were placed in kinder homes, but my sisters and I were split up and placed into two different families. While everyday life was better, the pervasive sense of not belonging, of being deeply devalued, and of being traumatized continued. My foster family discouraged me from telling anyone I was Native American. I was called vicious names by my peers and isolated from others in school. In one school that I attended, I was proud to have made the cheerleading squad but later found my cheerleading uniform cut to shreds. A sign was left that read: “Not for Indians.”

Importantly I know now that regardless of these environments into which we were thrust (severed from culture, community, language, and traditions; taken from our mother; and surviving the abusive placement which added to our emotional and spiritual damage), our deepest trauma began in the actual taking itself.

I am a Passamaquoddy from Pleasant Point, Maine, and have worked for American Friends Service Committee (AFSC) for 24 years. I was hired in 1992 to continue AFSC’s Wabanaki Program. This marked a significant change in my life because I was able to serve the youth in Wabanaki communities in ways that I knew could help meet their needs. Our programs and experiences for Wabanaki youth continue to emphasize a renewal of cultural traditions; boost social and job skills; and help native youth deal with discrimination, domestic abuse, and alcohol and drug addiction.

In 1999 I was presented with a unique opportunity. The state of Maine government was found to be out of compliance with a federal law designed to protect Indian children from unnecessary removal from their homes. The Maine Department of Human and Human Services (DHHS) reached out to the Wabanaki communities for help in becoming compliant with the Indian Child Welfare Act (ICWA). A working group was convened, and I agreed to join. I came to the table full of mistrust, fear, and anger. I came as an adult full of childhood memories about the abuse and torture that I suffered in foster care as a young girl.

Fortunately, with the support of wonderful friends and family, I was able to tell my story for an ICWA training film about the experiences of Wabanaki people in state foster care. There were many times I thought to myself, “Why on earth am I doing this?” and I am pretty sure that at times the non-native state workers weren’t too thrilled either, but persons from Muskie School of Public Service at the University of Southern Maine would not give up and would not go away. They continued to believe in all of us. Using this film, we helped train more than 500 DHHS workers in Maine on the importance of ICWA.

As we continued to work together and came to know one another, we found in each other trust, respect, and true friendship; I found a place where I knew I would never feel alone again. We also collectively recognized that in order for true healing to occur, the painful truths needed to be exposed. This is when the convening group, as we called ourselves, began to develop the concept of and program for truth and reconciliation in Maine, which resulted in the seating of the Maine Wabanaki-State Child Welfare Truth and Reconciliation Commission.

From the very beginning, we decided that work for truth and reconciliation was not going to be between two departments within our tribal and state governments but between the governments themselves. Today, we are side by side as equal partners doing what I once thought was impossible. Today as the truth and reconciliation process continues, I also want the Wabanaki youth to understand their history and what happened. They need to know why conditions are the way they are, why there is such a high suicide rate, why there is such a high incarceration rate. They need to know where they come from and to heal so the generational and historical trauma can end.

Maria Girouard

mgWhen I was first approached to work on TRC efforts, I wasn’t particularly enthusiastic. As a Penobscot historian, I was well aware of the legacy of trauma that Wabanaki people had endured in our ancestral territory, now referred to as “Maine.” Focusing on the small snapshot of time the TRC was exploring (1970 to present) felt overwhelmingly small and oppressive, given the vastness and complexity of Maine tribal-state relations. I decided that building historical context would be what I could uniquely offer the process, and I stepped into my role with a true caring, love, and appreciation for Wabanaki people and our history.

Working for truth, healing, and change has been greatly fulfilling, although oftentimes emotionally draining. Constantly recounting the traumas that my ancestors endured feels heavy at times, especially when our educational outreach efforts have me visiting Maine communities whose identities are steeped in sugarcoated versions of colonial history. Visiting the coastal town of Castine, for instance, I did not have to look very far for examples of historical trauma. Their town’s own historical signage boasts the conquest of my ancestors and refers to propagandist history, or “twist-ory,” that disrespects Penobscot Chief Madockawando—a chief whose name in Penobscot is descriptive of the high level of spiritual attainment for which he was recognized by his own people.

Building historical context also happens in our tribal communities. While not everyone is intimately aware of the history we have endured, many live in the aftermath of the grief and trauma. Understanding our history and the purposeful undermining of our families and culture is pivotal to our understanding of the social and economic hardship that surrounds us. The history of Indian residential boarding schools is a history of how our families and communities were severely disrupted. Native children removed from their families and from traditional teachings, abused and unloved, returned home after their stays in boarding schools angry, traumatized, and not knowing how to parent lovingly.

I use the analogy of a person who has long been sick and who has been unable to pinpoint their sickness. Learning about the historical trauma that our ancestors and relations have had to endure feels like a long-awaited diagnosis—finally we can understand what is wrong with us, and it is not our fault. Important to recounting our history is ensuring that Wabanaki people understand and appreciate the fact that we are survivors. Where there were once 20 distinct Wabanaki tribes in present-day “Maine,” now only five remain. We have survived. Following an educational film screening and discussion in my Penobscot community, one elderly woman said to me, “It’s no wonder it’s been so hard for me to love. I was in a boarding school when I was young, and I’ve always had a problem with how to love.”

At an educational panel discussion hosted by a church group from Ellsworth, a woman approached me with tears in her eyes. “It must be hard to not despair,” she suggested to me. I thought about this statement for a minute and then decided to share with her what keeps me hopeful. Our traditional teachings tell us that all the historical trauma that we endured had been predicted by our ancestors in a series of prophecies. This I have always found astounding, and apparently she did too. It has been this knowing that prevents me from drowning in despair because our traditional teachings also prophesied a period of great healing. If humankind could identify our common ground and understand our interconnectedness, peaceful harmony was possible. Elders have described this great healing as one that could sweep across Turtle Island, from East to West, like the light of a new dawn—but only if we can come together.

Through my work of supporting the TRC efforts, ushering in truth, healing, and change in my ancestral homeland, I feel I am working for the ancestors while working for all descendants at the same time. I remind people that this is not just Wabanaki history, or Penobscot history; this is our collective history of how we have lived in this place. Telling their stories to the commissioners is often an excruciatingly painful experience, yet many persons courageously step forward and in so doing are contributing to individual and community healing. I remind people that together we are writing our grandchildren’s history, and that we all are active participants. I invite them to join us on a journey of truth, healing, and change.

Arla Patch

apWhen I was 12 years old in Doylestown (Pa.) Meeting, my First-day school class exposed me to some of what happened to indigenous peoples in this country. It broke my heart. I knew then that someday I wanted to work toward healing that injustice.

The path was not revealed until 49 years later with an invitation from a non-native friend who had been a counselor on the Navajo Reservation (a territory occupying portions of Arizona, Utah, and New Mexico). She had been invited back to a wedding and asked me to come along. Being in Navajo territory gave me a deeper understanding of the continuing legacy of our devastating history. I came home to Maine and put in a Google search: “Maine, Native Americans, Quakers.” The Truth and Reconciliation Commission came up.

Through an AFSC conference call with Denise Altvater, I was able to ask about non-native involvement in the Maine Wabanaki-State Child Welfare TRC. An invitation came later to attend a meeting on Indian Island, which led to my volunteer participation on a communications subcommittee. From the very start, way opened time and again, validating that this leading was one I was to follow. Our committee developed a presentation using photographs, and I began giving a talk titled “The History, Necessity, and Process of the TRC” around the state.

As my experience with Wabanaki culture grew, my awareness broadened. Through deepening friendships with Denise Altvater and Esther Attean (also a Passamaquoddy tribal citizen), I awakened to the degree of devastation our history has claimed and how I personally benefit from the fact that the Wabanaki were targeted for destruction.

In my local community of Bethel, Maine, there had long been an annual summer event celebrating a native woman, MollyOckett, with a parade and festival. For 55 years a white girl was dressed up like an Indian (Miss MollyOckett) and rode at the head of the parade, waving to the crowd. In its second year of hosting the festival, the Bethel Area Chamber of Commerce realized there was an absence of native culture represented in the festival about a native woman. The president of the chamber invited some artists and musicians from the Penobscot Nation to participate.

At the 2013 festival, I was standing with Barry Dana, former chief of the Penobscot Nation, as the parade and a white Miss MollyOckett drove by. I knew at that moment, this tradition had to transform. I proposed to the chamber that we replace “Miss MollyOckett” with an essay challenge. My vision was to invite students from the two local high schools to write essays based on a prompt question such as, “What was life really like for MollyOckett and her people at the time she lived?” The best essay writers (one male and one female) would ride in the lead car of the parade. We would celebrate the truth, and the essays would be published in the local paper and archived with the Bethel Historical Society.

The chamber agreed. We are now getting ready for the third year of the essay challenge. It is supported by a local arts council grant; prize money is given; and the two high schools incorporate it into their curriculums with partnership from the local historical society. The judges for the essay challenge have been James Francis, tribal historian for the Penobscot Nation; Jennifer Pictou, curator of education at the Abbe Museum and a member of the Micmac nation; and poet Richard Blanco, who read at President Obama’s second inauguration. This local festival has expanded, is more inclusive, and is no longer disrespectful to the region’s original inhabitants. This cultural change is one form of reconciliation and healing.

After a year and a half of TRC volunteer work, I was asked to be the community engagement coordinator for Maine-Wabanaki REACH (Reconciliation, Engagement, Advocacy, Change, and Healing), a coalition of native and non-native people working to support the work of the TRC. It was REACH members who ultimately began implementing the recommendations made by the commissioners starting in June 2015.

One of the processes I’ve been involved with developing is ally training. This started with my realization that many white people have “un-metabolized grief” that needs to be worked through before they can become viable allies. Our trainings have led to support groups where non-native people can continue to share together, to learn, and to work to diminish the destructive legacy of white privilege.

As a white American woman whose ancestors came early to this continent, I have had to embrace the truth that our behavior toward indigenous peoples fits the United Nations definition of genocide. Great harm has occurred by not recognizing this truth. The time has come for the United States to come into alignment with the values our founding fathers preached. It is long overdue, but I am grateful to be part of addressing this 500-year-old injustice.

Elizabeth Koopman

ekMy journey with Wabanakis, and then subsequently with TRC work, began when I met Passamaquoddy elder Wayne Newell in 1990 at Indian Township School. My position at University of Maine at Machias and Wayne’s position as language and cultural director at this Bureau of Indian Education school brought together two teachers who cared deeply for spiritual nourishment, education, children, and peace. Wayne was well acquainted with Quakers, having served as the first indigenous director of AFSC’s Wabanaki Program. Our long friendship and shared work with AFSC Wabanaki continue to challenge me and to nurture the courage and integrity I need to acknowledge my continuing subtle complicity in oppression, both in attitude and practice. As I aspire to be a part of the healing aspirations among diverse peoples in Maine in the truth and reconciliation work now taking place, Wabanaki friends such as Wayne, Denise, and Maria continue to love me and to challenge me to face the truth and have faith in reciprocal healing.

It is stunning that for most of our lifetimes, both native and non-native persons who now are active in supporting the TRC were unaware of the historical roots of the centuries of trauma and violence, cultural genocide, and thievery of homelands that followed the first contacts with Europeans who arrived in 1604 in what is now called Maine and the Canadian Maritime provinces. Our inadequate capacities to see deeply into the source of contemporary suffering of the Wabanaki were due in part to ignorance of the Doctrine of Discovery, which legitimized the violent and deadly colonization by Western Europeans.

This Doctrine of Discovery was put into operation via papal bulls in the fifteenth century; e.g. in 1452, Pope Nicholas V directed Christian explorers to “capture, vanquish, and subdue the Saracens, pagans, and other enemies of Christ,” to “put them into perpetual slavery,” and “to take all their possessions and property” (documented by historian Frances Gardiner Davenport in his 1917 book on European treaties). Colonizers claimed the right to seize indigenous lands and peoples for their Christian monarchs. European Christians, including Quakers, carried this ethos with them to what was, for them, “a new world.” This mentality justified excruciating colonization and its deadly consequences. This continued until recently in Indian residential schools and foster care placements and continues today in thefts of indigenous lands, languages, and physical and cultural resources. Miraculously, here we are together today breaking the chains of our shared miseducation and facing painful historic and contemporary truths. The historic testimonies of the Society of Friends also teach that peace is possible, and now together we confront and transcend horrific shared history on the path toward healing and reconciliation through the Maine Wabanaki-State Child Welfare TRC.

Photo courtesy of Seven Eagles Media Production.
Signing the mandate on June 29, 2012, left to right: Chief Richard Getchell, Chief Joseph Socobasin, Chief Reuben Clayton Cleaves, Governor Paul LePage, Chief Kirk Francis, and Chief Brenda Commander. Photo courtesy of Seven Eagles Media Production.

The Founding of the Maine Wabanaki-State Child Welfare Truth and Reconciliation Commission

The Maine Wabanaki-State Child Welfare TRC was created and implemented following the signing of a mandate document on June 29, 2012, by five Wabanaki Chiefs and Maine Governor Paul LePage; the chiefs represented the same five tribes who signed the original Declaration of Intent a year earlier: Chief Richard Getchell of the Aroostook Band of Micmacs, Chief Joseph Socobasin of the Passamaquoddy Tribe at Motahkmikuk, Chief Reuben Clayton Cleaves of the Passamaquoddy Tribe at Sipayik, Chief Kirk Francis of the Penobscot Nation, and Chief Brenda Commander of the Houlton Band of Maliseet Indians.

At the signing, Chief Francis praised the TRC process and the commitment of all those involved:

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.

The seating of five commissioners (both native and non-native) took place on February 12, 2013, with a day of ceremonies and prayers in Hermon, Maine. These processes of listening continue today and have included non-native people involved in foster care and adoption.

Once the commissioners were seated, the body that created the TRC reorganized as Maine-Wabanaki REACH, a native/non-native coalition working in support of the TRC’s mandate (Arla and Maria both serve on REACH). History, photos, and updates on progress are available on the website, mainewabanakireach.org. Ways to support the truth and reconciliation work are also included.

Pulling the Past into a Brighter Future

As we ponder truth and reconciliation at this moment, we deeply realize that together we are relearning the world. Everyone involved in Maine truth and reconciliation work continues historic, positive values and practices of our foremothers and forefathers, incorporating those memories and inheritances into new patterns of living that include the transformed and healing relationships we now know are possible. We have not lost the positive influences, inspirations, values, and meanings embodied in the lives and memories of those who came before us and from whom we all are the “living and doing” descendants. Because history is not what we did but what we have inherited, the question is: “What are we going to do about it?” For those of us who are white, it is time to leverage our white privilege in support of our indigenous sisters and brothers by listening deeply and following their leadership. Our lives can speak in unity. We can care, and love, and heal. The truth is being made visible, and the healing has begun. We invite you to join us.

Denise Altvater, Maria Girouard, Arla Patch, and Elizabeth Koopman

Denise Altvater is a member of the Passamaquoddy Tribe (Maine). Maria Girouard is a member of the Penobscot Nation (Maine). Arla Patch is a member of Portland (Maine) Meeting. Elizabeth Koopman is a member of York (Pa.) Meeting.

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