LEWISTON — Two architects of the Maine Wabanaki-State Child Welfare Truth and Reconciliation Commission told a large audience at Bates College on Wednesday that state policy has for decades stripped the Native American children of their culture, language, family and community.
Esther Attean and Denise Altvater, both members of the Maine Passamaquoddy Tribe, said the commission’s aim is to discover and communicate the truth about the experiences of Wabanaki people with child welfare programs, and to promote healing and lasting change.
Attean said the process is proceeding with “respect and integrity” in the effort to return “truth, healing and change” to tribal members. The new commission was called the first of its kind in the United States.
Attean told of work in recent years to tell the long and little-known history of state child welfare programs that forced the assimilation of Native American children into the dominant culture. Starting in the 1800s, Wabanaki children in Maine were taken by the state from their families and communities and put into boarding schools or foster care to integrate them.
Arla Patch, community engagement coordinator for the Maine-Wabanaki Reconciliation, Engagement, Advocacy, Change and Healing Coalition, said Maine “is the first state to step up to this issue.”
She called government policies regarding Maine’s tribes have resulted in making the Native American communities “the most socio-economically distressed” of the state’s population.
Her remarks covered historical details of the Native Americans’ hardships dating to about 50 years before Columbus when the “Doctrine of Discovery” allowed and encouraged explorers and settlers to take land and possessions from the indigenous people and to use any means to eradicate them.
“Great harm has resulted from ignorance of these facts,” Patch said.
Attean told the audience that “early efforts of the (Truth and Reconciliation Commission) were challenging because it threw together people with loads of baggage.” She said the key to the commission’s formation was completion of a Declaration of Intent in 2010.
Five new commissioners were seated in February and their work will continue until June 2015, when they will make recommendations based on their findings.
The program, which took place at Bates College’s Olin Arts Center Auditorium, was part of the Harward Center for Community Partnerships’ Civic Forum Series, “The History, Necessity and Process of the Truth & Reconciliation Commission.”
Noted artist and historian Robert Shetterly introduced the presenters by sharing the portraits he painted of REACH’s Altvater and Attean for his portrait series, “Americans Who Tell the Truth,” depicting 200 individuals who have addressed issues of social, environmental and economic fairness.
His portraits of Altvater and Attean were unveiled recently in the Hall of Flags at the Maine State House.
The next program in the forum series is Oct. 20 when James Tierney, former attorney general of Maine and majority leader of the House of Representatives, talks on “Immigration in Maine: Past and Future.”
It will be held at the Edmund S. Muskie Archives at Bates College, 70 Campus Ave, Lewiston.