Students at Gould Academy and Telstar High School will have a unique cultural opportunity during the week of Martin Luther King Day, when Maine painter Robert Shetterly will discuss his portrait series, Americans Who Tell the Truth (AWTT) with the student bodies of both schools.
In addition, paintings from his widely acclaimed project will be on display at Gould’s Owen Art Gallery until mid-February.
Shetterly began the series after the events of September 11, 2001 to “present citizens who courageously engage issues of social, environmental, and economic fairness.” Since beginning the project, he has painted nearly 200 portraits.
Among his subjects are educators, artists, environmental crusaders, and advocates for peace, equality, and justice. Each portrait includes a quote from the subject, etched into the oil paint.
The paintings chosen for the Bethel exhibit (for which Shetterly has generously agreed to waive his usual exhibition fee of $200 per painting) include two of Shetterly’s most recent portraits, those of Maine Passamaquoddy citizens and activists Esther Attean and Denise Altvater.
Attean and Altvater have been instrumental in the creation of the Maine-Wabanaki State Child Welfare Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) process. It is largely due to their efforts that Maine has become the first state in the nation to establish a TRC, charged with investigating and acknowledging the harm done to Wabanaki children and families by the Maine child welfare system, creating opportunities for healing, and assuring the best child welfare system possible.
Arla Patch of Bryant Pond has been involved with Maine-Wabanaki REACH (the acronym stands for Reconciliation, Engagement, Advocacy, Change, and Healing), a cross-cultural collaborative which assists the efforts of the TRC, since early 2012. In 2013 she was hired as REACH’s Community Education Coordinator, helping to spread its message of promoting “best child welfare practice…for and between Wabanaki and Maine citizens, communities, and governments.”
When Patch learned of Shetterly’s portrait project, she knew that the two women most responsible for helping to develop and promote the truth and reconciliation process in Maine belonged in the series.
Remembering his portraits, but not his name—and not aware that he was a Maine resident—Patch searched out his work on the Internet and found his contact information. Then, she says, “I cold-called him and asked him if he had heard about the Truth and Reconciliation Commission.”
Shetterly had heard of the TRC, but wanted to know more. When Patch described their work, he was receptive, and agreed to meet with her.
After talking extensively with Patch, Shetterly traveled to Sipayik (the Pleasant Point reservation in eastern Maine), to interview Altvater, and then to Indian Island to interview Attean. He photographed both women and returned to his studio to create the portraits.
Attean, a training specialist at USM’s Muskie School of Public Service, has spent more than a decade educating native and non-native people about the effects of government policy on generations of indigenous people. She has consistently spoken out against racial bias, the removal of native children from their communities, and their forced assimilation into white society.
Altvater was one of six sisters forcibly removed from their home in the 1960s and placed with a foster family, where they endured four years of physical, emotional, and sexual abuse before being relocated to another home. She continued to suffer from the trauma after eventually being reunited with her birth mother, and over the years became a leading voice for the truth and reconciliation process.
In the 1990s, Wabanaki children were being taken from their homes and placed in foster care, often with non-native families, at 18 times the rate of children from non-native families. Because of this inequity, Maine was out of compliance with the federal Indian Child Welfare Act (ICWA) of 1978, which mandates a priority of keeping native children with tribal members.
In danger of losing federal funding due to non-compliance, the state reached out to the tribe to help them improve their practices. Altvater stepped up to tell her story for a training film that was used to educate DHS workers on the importance of the ICWA.
Patch says education is key in creating an atmosphere of trust and respect between native and non-native peoples.
“In giving this talk to largely non-native audiences, I have witnessed what I call unmetabolized grief that we carry,” she says. “The enormity of how sad this history is makes it hard for folks to learn about it. That is why a truth commission is needed. But as we work through our feelings, we need to turn them into fuel, to fuel action. Unless non-native people can partner and become allies with native people, it’s never going to turn around.”
Thanks to the work of Attean, Altvater, and others who worked to establish the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, the TRC’s mandate was signed in June of 2012 by the Maine Wabanaki chiefs and Gov. Paul LePage.
The five commissioners will spend three years meeting with and taking testimony from individuals, families, and child welfare workers who were affected by what Patch describes as “multi-generational trauma” caused by government policies designed to destroy the cultural identity of native peoples.
On Martin Luther King, Jr. Day, January 20, the Gould Academy community will take part in a full day of events designed to celebrate the legacy of the slain civil rights leader. Esther Attean will address the student body in the morning, and Robert Shetterly will speak to them in the afternoon. During lunch in the dining hall, student essays based on Shetterly’s portraits will be read aloud.
Shetterly will address the Telstar High School student body on Tuesday, January 21, at 10:25 a.m. The public is welcome to attend the Telstar assembly.
The exhibit in Owen Art Gallery at Gould Academy is open to the public at no charge, Monday through Friday from 4 to 6 p.m.