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Truth and Reconciliation

Wabanaki Legal News, Spring 2012

What is a Truth and Reconciliation Commission?

A TRC is a group of people chosen to investigate a problem and make suggestions about how to make the problem better.  This TRC is focusing on what happened to Wabanaki people involved with the Maine child welfare system.

What are the goals of this TRC? 

There are three goals:

  • To find out and write down what  happened
  • To give Wabanaki people a place to share their stories and have a voice
  • To give the Maine child welfare system suggestions on how it can work better  with Wabanaki people

Why have a TRC on Wabanaki people and child welfare?

The United States government has tried many different ways to solve what they called “the Indian problem” - stealing land, killing off entire tribes by war and disease, and by taking Indian children away from their families and communities.

In the 1800’s, different church groups with the support of the government took Indian children and sent them to boarding schools far away from their communities.  Children couldn’t speak their own language, wear their own clothes, or practice their own religion. They also treated Indian children badly.  Children were abused physically, emotionally, and sexually. Many children died. The ones who made it home after years in these schools were not the same as when they left.

In the 1950’s, the Bureau of Indian Affairs and the Child Welfare League of America did an experiment where they took hundreds of Indian children from their families to raise them in white homes, thinking it was better for them.  In Maine, Indian children were taken from their families and placed in white foster homes at a higher rate than most other states.

In 1978, the federal government passed a law called the Indian Child Welfare Act that gave Indian children more protection and recognized a child’s tribal citizenship as being as important as their family relationship. Maine Child Welfare has been working to improve its relationship with Wabanaki tribes and Wabanaki people. A lot of progress has been made, but there are still some problems. This TRC will identify the problems and make suggestions to help fix these problems.

What will this TRC process look like?

The TRC will be made up of five people. They will spend a few months in each tribal community learning the history, getting to know people and their ways of doing things, and listening to people’s stories about what happened to them with Maine Child Welfare.

The TRC will also hear stories from some of the people who worked for programs that were involved in Indian Child Welfare. The TRC will write a report that includes the information they have gathered (the Truth) and suggestions for how the Maine Child Welfare system can work better with Wabanaki people (the Reconciliation or understanding).

What will be hard about this process?

It will be hard for people to tell their stories because many of these stories are painful to remember. Whether it is a mother who had children taken away, children who were taken away, or other family and friends who were affected by the child welfare system, these stories will not be easy to tell or easy to hear. There is a lot of shame around being involved in the child welfare system and not many people have shared their stories before. There will also be stories about survival and strength.

Who is involved?

The Convening Group is made up of child welfare staff from all of the tribes and the State. There are three people who are paid to work on the TRC planning. 

How can I get involved?

There are many ways you can support the TRC in your community, and many ways for tribal members to help:

  • Spread the word! – Talk to your family, friends and co-workers about the project; help educate tribal leaders and community members.
  • Be a member of the TRC Community Group in your area. There is a group in each tribal community and one for Wabanaki Mental Health in Bangor.
  • Share your story with the TRC.

Who do I get in touch with if I want to help or get more information?

Contact your tribal child welfare department, or contact Esther Attean, a Passamaquoddy tribal member and the lead staff person on the TRC at (207) 615-3189.  You can e-mail her at:  eattean@usm.maine.edu.

Visit our website at:  www.mainetribaltrc.org.
Publication Volume: 
2012.1
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