For the thousands Native American children in Maine who were taken from their families to be raised in institutional schools or white homes, the trauma “was in the taking,” according to social worker, activist and Passamaquoddy tribal member Esther Attean.
Attean recently visited Bowdoin’s campus, with a few others, to speak about the history of this abusive, and largely unknown, child welfare practice and what is being done to address it.
Even when the new homes were loving (although this was often not the case), all the native children who were removed from their families suffered. By now, Attean said, research has shown that the repercussions of this forced assimilation, which took place throughout the past century, didn’t just stop at the child. The pain of severing a family and a culture ripped through the relatives left behind and affected generations to come. This “historical trauma” has led to Native American populations who continue to struggle with the highest rates of socioeconomic distress in the country, she said.
Even though we’ve passed down trauma, we’ve also passed down everything that has helped us survive: generosity, humor and resilience. We’re still here despite all these practices and policies.” Esther Attean, Passamaquoddy tribal member
To shine a light on a tragic history and to try to heal their scars, members of Maine’s Native American nations — the Passamaquoddy, the Penobscot, the Maliseet and the Micmac — have been working with state officials to build a special commission, the Maine Wabanaki State Child Welfare Truth and Reconciliation Commission. Maine is the first state in the country to initiate a process of truth and reconciliation with its indigenous communities.
The commission, which five Wabanaki chiefs and Gov. Paul LePage mandated in 2012, is charged with investigating harmful welfare practices. Its five members will research documents and gather testimony from tribal families, welfare workers and others. At the end of three years, the commission will write a report on the history of Maine’s tribal child policies and recommend ways to improve current welfare practices for Wabanaki children and families.
“There are three purposes of the commission,” Attean said. “Truth, healing and change.” Attean is co-director of the organization Maine-Wabanaki REACH, which has been instrumental in launching and supporting the truth and reconciliation process.
Bowdoin recently invited two of the commissioners, as well as Attean and two others involved in the truth and reconciliation process, to campus. The event — which included the talks; a poetry reading by Maliseet teacher, artist and writer Mihku Paul; and the unveiling of portraits of Attean and her sister-in-law, Denise Altvater, by the artist Robert Shetterly — was sponsored by President Barry Mills’ office, the Native American Student Association, the McKeen Center and the Department of Sociology and Anthropology. McKeen Center Director Sarah Seames planned the event with Destiny Guerrero ’14, co-leader of the Native American Student Association, and Roy Partridge, special assistant to the president for multicultural affairs and visiting assistant sociology professor.
To help explain how this injustice could have happened, three visitors — Attean, Maria Girouard of the Penobscot Nation, and Penthea Burns co-director of Maine-Wabanaki REACH — gathered in Ladd House for an interactive session prior to the formal evening event. To a group of students, faculty and community members, the three presenters quickly covered 11,000 years of Native American history in Maine, focusing mostly on the last 500 years, during which the total number of Native Americans was reduced by 96 percent to 98 percent. Of the more than 20 tribes of the Wabanaki Confederacy, which refers to the Native American tribes of Maine, only four tribes survive today in Maine. Today about 8,000 Native people live in the state. “Basically, we were in the way,” Girouard said.
While brutality toward Native Americans began as soon as European settlers arrived in North America, the idea of systematically assimilating Indian children into white culture didn’t gain traction until later. A man considered progressive in his day, Henry Richard Pratt, (1840-1924), recommended that the American government “kill the Indian and save the man.” He proposed removing young Indians from their homes and placing them in boarding schools. By 1900, tens of thousands of Native Americans were studying at hundreds of boarding schools around the country. Most of the Native children taken from Maine ended up at Carlisle Barracks in Pennsylvania between 1879 and 1916.
There, Indian children were deloused with DDT, had their hair cut, were stripped of their native dress and told to stop speaking their language and to not use their names. “They lost their language, they lost their community,” Attean said. Some children died while there; some died while trying to escape.
This educational policy is important to help understand the cultural context of later practices. In the late 1950s, the Bureau of Indian Affairs set out to prove that Native children were better off in white homes. For 10 years, investigators followed nearly 400 children who were adopted into new families before concluding that this treatment was not successful. That policy was put to an end. Even so, the numbers of tribal children taken from their homes remained high. “In 1999, 16% of all Maliseet children were in state care,” Attean said. Also, like black and Latino children, native children tend to remain in the foster system longer than white children.
By 2008, a few visionaries in Maine-Wabanaki REACH began to speak about the need for a truth and reconciliation process that would involve both the state of Maine and the tribal nations. Five years later, the commission has five members: Maine Secretary of State Matt Dunlap; Sandy White Hawk, who was one of the children taken from her home when she was just 17 months old; nonprofit consultant Carol Wishcamper; University of Maine School of Social Work professor Dr. Gail Werrbach; and gkisedtanamoogk, adjunct lecturer at the University of Maine. The latter two joined Attean at Bowdoin for an evening panel discussion.
After suffering under a dominant culture for so many centuries, it is a miracle that native people have survived at all, gkisedtanamoogk noted. But it is a testimony to their strength. “It’s a miracle we’re here, that our language is still here and that we’re still connected to the land,” he said, adding later, “We created ways of being that influenced and still continues to influence the world.”