Killed the Indian, Now Find the Man - Part 2

War and Peace


[read Part 1]


Looking at America’s First State-Tribal Truth and Reconciliation Commission


There have been few efforts made to rectify and redress the wrongs of the past, with the exception of the Bureau of Indian Affairs and Child Welfare League of America offering apologies to American Indians in 2001 for their role in the project’s promotion and legitimization. American Indian families throughout the country have, to this day, struggled to reconcile with the traumatic legacy of losing family members across the generations of these practices, their identities as members of their own respective native Tribes and Nations, and a fundamental sense of belonging.


Out of a desire to help their own people reconcile with haunting pasts, Denise Altvater, a survivor of the Maine foster care system and a member of the Passamaquoddy Tribe in Maine,and fellow tribal member Esther Attean have led the ground-breaking formation of the first Tribal-State truth and reconciliation commission (TRC) in the history of the United States. Their efforts have resulted in the venture taken by the Wabanaki Tribes and the State of Maine to “to uncover and acknowledge the truth, creating opportunities to heal and learn from the truth, and collaborate to operate the best child welfare system possible for Wabanaki children.” Following years of planning, Altvater, Attean, and a group of native and non-native individuals finally saw their goal realized. In June 2012, Maine Governor Paul LePage and the Chiefs of all five Wabanaki Tribes in Maine signed a mandate officially establishing the Maine Wabanaki-State Child Welfare Truth and Reconciliation Commission.


Similar to other truth and reconciliation commissions, such as the Comissão Nacional da Verdade in Brazil or the one currently being federally implemented in Canada to examine analogous residential school policies implemented against children of First Nation tribes, the Commission in Maine is seeking to uncover the lost truths of the past “creating a common understanding of what happened.”  This will be done in a supportive, healing environment for those who were affected. Furthermore, the TRC is also a means for the Wabanaki Tribal Governments, and most importantly the Maine government, to reflect and improve upon the child welfare process in the state to ensure American Indian children are never placed in the same position again.


The Maine Wabanaki-State TRC is a first-in-the-world effort between indigenous peoples and a state government to examine past grievances this way, but as a result, there are few examples to follow. “None of us know what to expect,” says Arla Patch, a non-native member of the Communications Committee for the TRC. However, with the help of individuals who were involved in the Greensboro, South Carolina Truth and Reconciliation Commission that took place in the 2005, the cooperation of all Tribal Chiefs and Governor LePage, and the support of non-governmental organizations, the Maine Wabanaki-State TRC is certainly not alone in pioneering this process.


While Ms. Patch emphasizes that funding remains a significant challenge, the TRC has moved ahead and selected the five commissioners who will lead its investigative and healing activities, which will hopefully aid the psychological and physical journeys of the survivors, their families, and communities throughout Maine, to uncover the lost truths of their pasts. The TRC also aims to promote reconciliation for the white social workers and others involved in the taking of children in a social context that promoted this as the “best practice” of the time.


As these commissioners prepare to take their seats on 12 February 2013, it is certain that one state out of the fifty-united will begin unveiling a portrait of a less glorious U.S. history in hopes of painting a more self-aware picture of the American nation. 


“Maine will be the first, where the sun rises first in the U.S., to address this period in our country’s history,” states Ms. Patch. “This will have global implications. Bringing out the truth is the first step.” 



Special thanks to Penthea Burns and Arla Patch for their assistance in writing this piece



Follow Bennett on Twitter @BenJFCollins



Children's Rights, International Adoption, Native American, Racism, Reconciliation, United States