What Truth and Reconciliation Looks Like in Practice

Black Lives Matter protests have continued for months, in the wake of what feels like endless police violence. In fact, Black, Brown and Indigenous people have faced systemic violence for centuries, since the days Europeans first claimed as theirs what we now call the Americas. It seems, finally, there is a reckoning at hand, not just for the violent deaths of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and many others, but for centuries of state-sanctioned theft, murder, rape, torture and violence.

Astute civic leaders are grappling with the nationwide reckoning that simmers and, increasingly, boils over. District attorneys from Boston, Philadelphia and San Francisco came together over the summer to call for the creation of truth, justice, and reconciliation commissions to address the legacies of systemic, racially-based harm caused by police and the criminal justice system. The announcement made a media splash at the time, but little has been said since, and none of the DA’s were available to comment for this story — although a representative from Philadelphia District Attorney Larry Krasner’s office did say that the office was “listening” to the community in order to come up with the best possible commission structure to “help Philadelpheans heal.”

In July, the city council of Asheville, North Carolina, unanimously passed a resolution calling for reparations for the Black community, acknowledging and apologizing for histories — and present-day incarnations of — systemic enslavement, racism, discrimination and incarceration. The resolution includes a list of wrongs committed against Blacks simply based on the color of their skin, and directs the creation of a commission to develop a plan to make “significant progress towards repairing the damage caused by the public and private systemic Racism.”

But the burden of determining what these commissions will look like — who will sit on them, who will speak to them, who was harmed, or even who is included in the “Black People” the Asheville resolution mentions — seems very much up in the air. And how to determine exactly how reparations can be best meted out is likewise unclear.

Recent reports of waning Black Lives Matter support suggest that many white Americans are tiring of the movement. Do those turning away want a fast, easy answer to an entrenched, complicated problem? Writing a check is a common go-to solution. Yet neither money nor good intentions can beget equity in the here and now, nor propel us forward to a more perfect union rooted in true equality. Writing a check, or sticking a “Black Lives Matter” or “All Are Welcome” sign in your front lawn falls insultingly far short of the self-awareness U.S. society now requires.

Historical, generational trauma cannot be overcome by slogans, marches, or performative allyship. Determining who suffers from racially oriented, systemic harm cannot be measured by an evaluation of skin tone. The harms done to communities of color across the country expand well beyond the Black community and deep into Native, Hispanic, and immigrant communities.

We are now 528 years after Columbus’ unfortunate arrival in the Caribbean and the enslavement of the Native population, 401 years after the first enslaved Africans arrived on these shores. The deficit and trauma will not be reconciled in a week, a month, or a year.

What, then, does real, lasting reconciliation look like, among groups of people who have never been unified in the first place?

In this moment, let’s pause and consider a solution that has already been tried and, in some ways, has succeeded, right here in the United States. In 2015, the Maine Wabanaki-Child Welfare Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) released a report finding and acknowledging that the state of Maine committed a cultural genocide against its Native peoples — the Wabanaki — by forcibly removing Native children from their homes and placing them with white families.

The Commission investigated genocidal events that took place not sometime in the distant past, but very much in the 21st century. From 2009 to 2015, Native children in Maine were placed in foster care more than five times as often as non-Native children. In the several years prior to 2009, up to half of the Native children entering foster care did not have their heritage recognized.

To even acknowledge those facts is in itself meaningful, and has led to personal transformations that have in turn changed the bureaucratic process of Maine’s government. Systems, it seems, can change when the people who work within them change.

Five years after the Commission released its report, the truths it acknowledged and lifted up — including those chronicled in the 2018 documentary Dawnland — continue to inspire transformation. No big checks were written, no flashy gifts were made. No relationship is perfect, yet the Commission’s impact continues to quietly resonate.

How is it that change persists five years after the Commission ended? And how did this transformation come about?

Understanding the Scope of Genocide

The United Nations defines genocide as “any of the following acts committed with intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious group, as such: killing members of the group; causing serious bodily or mental harm to members of the group; deliberately inflicting on the group conditions of life calculated to bring about its physical destruction in whole or in part; imposing measures intended to prevent births within the group; [and] forcibly transferring children of the group to another group.” [emphasis added]

The Wabanaki is the name for both the People and the Place of First Light. The people, collectively, are the tribes: Maliseet, Mi’kmaq, Passamaquoddy, and Penobscot. The place — where they were among the first people — is currently occupied by the eastern most part of the United States and a portion of maritime Canada.

Native children have been removed from their tribes by whites as long as white settler colonists have been in what is now called the Americas — more than 500 years of racially-based, targeted removal of children from their families.

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Maine-Wabanaki REACH Executive Director Maria Girouard, Penobscot, speaks at a 2014 event called “Genocide & Maine: Shining the Light of Truth.”

This is not the space to review those 528 years of history. For our purposes, we’ll start in the U.S. in the 1970s, when Congress held hearings on the process of removing Native children from their tribes and families and placing them in white homes in order to force them to assimilate to white culture. In 1978, the U.S. Congress addressed the issue by passing the Indian Child Welfare Act (ICWA), in order to end the crisis of the “wholesale separation of Indian children from their families.” It took four years of horrifying testimony, but Congress had acted, directing states to actively work to keep Native children with their Native family or tribe.

But the state of Maine never bothered to implement the Act.

By 1999, Maine had the highest rate of Indian child removal of any state in the nation, says Denise Altvater, Passamaquoddy, a leader in Maine-Wabanaki REACH (Restoration, Engagement, Advocacy, Change, Healing) who assisted in the creation of the Maine Wabanaki-Child Welfare Truth and Reconciliation Commission, and who also works with the American Friends Service Committee.

Altvater is also someone who was taken away from her family and her tribe as a child. Now 61, she suffers from depression and PTSD.

When she was seven, she and five of her sisters lived in poverty, isolated in rural northeastern Maine. Their house, more of a shack, had no running water and no electricity. Her mother had no car, but still needed to travel to the reservation, a 30-minute drive away, to obtain the resources they needed. One day, while her mother was out, a station wagon pulled up in front of her home. The white people who got out put all of her belongings and her sisters’ belongings in garbage bags, and told them they were going to live in a different place.

“Being taken, and the way I was taken, was very traumatic,” Altvater tells Next City. “One of the things we’ve found in our research is [that] it didn’t matter if you were put in a good home or a bad home. The trauma was in the taking.”

She was placed in a white foster home where she was tortured, starved, raped, and physically abused. She was called names, and told not to talk about being Native.

She lived in this environment for four years.

The state eventually removed her and her sisters from this place, and divided the children among several different homes. At age 14, seven years after her forcible removal, she was reunited with her mother and moved back in with her.

Until the TRC, she did not know how many other Native children had experienced the same forced foster-care placement and similar types of abuse. It just wasn’t something people talked about.

What Altvater didn’t know as a child — what she couldn’t have known — was that she would become a leader not just in talking about what happened to Native children in Maine, but in transforming how both survivors of the system and the very people who perpetuated that system would find their peace, together.

How the Commission Came Together

In 1999, the Federal government did an audit of Maine’s child welfare practices, and it was clear to the federal government that Maine was grossly out of compliance with ICWA. In fact, according to Maine Secretary of State Matthew Dunlap, who also served as one of the five Truth and Reconciliation commissioners, ICWA had never truly been implemented in the state. After the audit, the state was at risk of losing federal funding for its child and family services.

Native children needed to be kept with their Native families — ICWA directed that. But too often, the white social workers didn’t even know if a child was Native, didn’t tell the tribe, and placed the child with a white family far away. Unlike the nuclear, isolated-from-larger-family-and-community child-rearing styles common in white communities, the Native tribe serves as a family, or second parent, for the child.

“All these different points around ICWA had to be taught,” notes Maria Girouard, Penobscot, the executive director of Maine-Wabanaki REACH. And so, a group of social workers from the state’s Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS) reached out to the Muskie School of Public Service at the University of Southern Maine for help with fixing the problem.

The idea became to go around the state and train social workers in Maine about ICWA requirements. But the state social workers were totally ignorant of tribes, history, and the way state policies had harmed the tribes, and they were suddenly trying to work with the very people that had been abused by their system. “There were a lot of hard feelings,” says Girouard.

Those hard feelings kept weighing the people down. State and tribal social workers reached a point where they had to put it all on the table. Feelings were so harsh and embedded, the two very different groups couldn’t work together. The white people who were in positions where they could remove Native kids were far away from the Native way of thinking.

“One day we decided we were stuck,” says Altvater, who was brought in to help train white social workers on ICWA. Altvater realized racial tensions weren’t easing, and the people involved had to make a decision: “Do we keep doing what we’re doing, and call it the best we can do, or do we take the giant leap and go deeper?”

Altvater says the group of trainers and social workers knew that the work they did could make a difference and matter. So they decided to go back and take an honest look at what happened — the policies and events that would come to be recognized as genocide, but did not yet have that label — and then to deal with it, to move forward “in the best way possible.”

What started as a one-year training program continued on. “We realized it’s not a state of doneness,” to be achieved, notes Penthea Burns, who is white and was at the University of Southern Maine and worked in the early days to bring the state’s social workers into ICWA compliance, and now serves on the board of Maine-Wabanaki REACH.

Maine Wabanaki Denise Altvater LePage 920 683 80

Denise Altvater delivered remarks during a ceremony at Indian Island, Maine in May 2011 when the TRC’s Declaration of Intent was signed by five Wabanaki chiefs and Maine Governor Paul LePage. LePage is seated in the background. (AP Photo/Pat Wellenbach)

“We started focusing on transformational discussion, aside from tribal training,” Burns notes. “How do we educate ourselves and other people about what the truth actually is, and the stories we carry?” she asks.

Eventually, through continued dialogue, they began calling themselves the convening group. And they decided they were going to convene a truth commission. The group knew that once the Commission was formed, they’d have to give up control of the process, and let the Commission do the work.

Their first step was to write a declaration of intent, which the tribal people did alone first, by researching and listening to stories in Canada, in New York at the Center for International Justice, and with the truth and reconciliation project in Greensboro, North Carolina.

With what they learned, they took action. One of the first steps was taking reparations off the table. “We thought it was a hindrance after listening to Canada, and thought it wasn’t a starting point,” notes Altvater. “The first thing in our minds, foremost, was healing.” Altvater says her priorities were truth, healing, and change, while others in the group wanted to talk about education and reparations. The group never explicitly said that reparations were not able to happen — just that the focus and priority would be truth. And healing.

“For me, I felt like, no amount of money in the world … nothing is going to give me back my childhood, my humanity, my soul, the little girl. What I needed was to be heard. Listened to. And believed,” says Altvater.

And then the Natives in the group wrote down everything done wrong to the Wabanaki since time immemorial. And the non-Native, DHHS people in the group said, “No.” This would absolutely not turn into a deep examination of all the wrongs over hundreds of years. And for Natives in the group, that was a refreshing response.

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