What Truth and Reconciliation Looks Like in Practice – Next City

In this still from the documentary "Dawnland," Georginia Sappier-Richardson shares her story at a Maine Wabanaki-State Child Welfare Truth & Reconciliation Commission community visit.

Screen grab by Ben Pender-Cudlip, courtesy of the Upstander Project

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What Truth and Reconciliation Looks Like in Practice

As cities form commissions to confront centuries of systemic racism, look to Maine for an example of a reckoning that can bring meaningful change.

Story by Valerie Vande PanneTwitter

Published on Nov 2, 2020

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.

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.

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.

“White people like to appease you and not have conflict with you, because of racism and what will come out,” notes Altvater. “What struck us was we had done so much work over the years and had gained so much trust for each other, that the state felt comfortable telling us no. White people walk on eggshells around Native people. They’re afraid of saying the wrong thing, saying something that might be considered racist. [In this case] they weren’t careful about what they said, they just said no. And we thought that was really refreshing.”

So the group started over. They wrote a new declaration of intent, with support from the tribes, that focused specifically on Native child removal, seeking to form a truth and reconciliation commission. Then they sought support from controversial Maine Governor Paul LePage. And he supported it.

The group was public about their intent to tell the truth, and Girouard notes it took a lot of work to get tribal members to feel the endeavor was worthwhile. Members of the Native community were deeply concerned that the truth-telling would “be so painful, people would want to drink and drug and kill themselves,” says Girouard. The group’s response? “They’re already doing that. Maybe this will help heal.”

“I think one of the biggest things is naming the genocide, and owning that history,” she adds.

What It Takes to Tell the Truth, to Bear Witness, and to Step Back When Asked

The Mandate for the Maine Wabanaki-State Child Welfare Truth and Reconciliation Commission was signed in a ceremony by all five tribal chiefs and LePage in June 2012.

Girouard points out that at the signing ceremony at the state Hall of Flags, LePage spoke of how he considered himself an orphan. That might surprise people who observed the Tea Party governor from afar. But by all accounts, the particular circumstances of his personal history made him feel strongly about seeing the Commission’s work through.

The five people chosen to be part of the TRC were very different from each other, with varied skills and backgrounds, but by all accounts they operated as a cohesive team. Three commissioners were white and two were Native, though neither Native member was from Maine. This way, the Commission had Native perspective, experience and leadership — Commissioner Sandy White Hawk, Sicangu Lakota, herself had been an adoptee — without the appearance of bias, or being too close to the local problem.

The Commission worked for three years, from 2012-2015, initially spending more than a year just preparing for the convenings, before they even went into communities.

”They don’t trust us,” notes Dunlap, of how tribal communities feel about white people and the state government. “And why should they?”

“This Truth Commission was the first of its kind formed with the consent of all parties,” Dunlap adds. The Commission considered TRC models from Argentina, Sierra Leone, El Salvador, and Greensboro, North Carolina, and learned what not to do. “In Greensboro, one commissioner wrote their own report, and that undermined the others,” he says.

Meanwhile, all parties to the process understood that the tribes had to prepare for the Commission, too. In January 2013 Girouard was hired by Maine-Wabanaki REACH to serve as a community organizer for Penboscot Nation. She reached out to tribal members, to let them know what the Commission was, who the commissioners were, and if members had a story, that the Commission wanted to hear it. “We wanted people to feel supported,” she notes, adding that they facilitated many community events to learn together, as well as talking circles, so people could practice putting their voices out there, telling their stories and being heard.

For Girouard, how the Commission did the work and fulfilled its purpose was just as important as the product it produced. More important was the truth-telling. There was a good deal of pushback all around to the idea. Girouard says she was asked, “Why do you want to open that can of worms?”

But it was a festering, infected wound, says Girouard. “It’s not going to heal until you open it up and clean it out.” REACH worked with a wellness coordinator — then and now — to ensure that tribal members received the support they needed as they went through the process of telling their stories.

During the truth-telling process, Altvater says, “The people would tell their stories, in a circle, or privately, in writing, or recorded, or someone else could tell it — whatever was best for them. They had total control over what happened to the statement, and they could change their mind any time.”

The TRC’s archives are housed in Maine at Bowdoin College — an agreed-upon location, given that the state of Maine has been less than respectful of, for example, “Indian artifacts” stored in state archives that tribes have asked to be returned, but have not been, notes Dunlap.

“You think of genocide as a mass grave. But you go into that culture, you remove children. You prohibit them from using their language, from practicing their religion, from learning their culture. You’re erasing a culture. What do you call that?”

Screen grab by Ben Pender-Cudlip, courtesy of the Upstander Project

Gail Werrbach, one of the five commissioners, is now retired from her former position as Director of the University of Maine School of Social Work. When she came to the University of Maine in 1988, the first MSW program was starting. “I had no idea there were Native American communities in Maine,” she says.

Her role as a commissioner was to “apologize to communities, to speak out, in terms of what my profession had done,” Werrbach explains. “It felt humbling to be able to do that.”

The first person who shared their story with the Commission was Altvater, who broke down while telling it. One of the white commissioners in the room at that time was Matthew Dunlap.

“I learned in that moment, as Secretary of State, there’s absolutely no way that I can divorce myself from the actions of any of my predecessors,” says Dunlap. “I am the government. And I thought, if I own that, I have the power to stop it.”

When Altvater broke down, the group determined that too many people were in the room, and the white, non-community members were asked to meet elsewhere. This decision caused a huge rift — the white people thought the decision was racist, that if Natives really wanted the process to work, the white people needed to be there. Then, Altvater says her sister-in-law explained it to the white people this way: “No, you don’t have a right to be here. For all intents and purposes, you represent the perpetrators. We stepped back to make it easier for them to tell their stories. The safety and security of Native people to tell their story is more important than the right of white people to be in the room.”

“I think what came out of that, from both sides, was [an illustration of] the harm of white privilege,” says Altvater.

What the Report Says

Much of the three-year investigation was spent documenting first-hand accounts. Before the Commission came out publicly with their report, the Commission met individually with each tribal community, the people who had provided testimony, and the people who guided the process, including REACH.

The first time the report was shared privately by the commissioners with a tribe, Girouard says there was a “dead silence, and it was heavy. Finally, someone said, ‘Thank you. I feel heard.’”

The whole landscape of what we’d seen was that they’d been through genocide,” says Dunlap. “People in my own family said ‘I don’t see that.’ You think of genocide as a mass grave. But you go into that culture, you remove children. You prohibit them from using their language, from practicing their religion, from learning their culture. You’re erasing a culture. What do you call that?”

The Commission issued its report in June 2015, finding that the state committed a “cultural genocide.”

“To me, it should have been [called] ‘genocide,’ not ‘cultural genocide,’” says Altvater. “Killing us, displacing us, trying to get us assimilated … putting us on reservations thinking we would disappear.”

The report issued several recommendations. The first was to respect tribal sovereignty. Other recommendations included recruiting more foster homes in Native communities and developing “DHHS legal and judicial trainings that go beyond the basics of checklists and toolkits to recognize bias and build cultural awareness at all levels of leadership and accountability in ways that frame ICWA within historical context.”

Altvater points out that when the group first came together to address Maine’s lack of ICWA compliance, “We were the Child Welfare Coalition, we became a convening group, and then we became REACH. After the report, REACH became the [group] who has been trying to implement the recommendations throughout the communities,” says Altvater. “I think it has had a huge ripple effect.”

The Personal Transformations and Policy Work Continue

Dunlap says the Department of Health and Human Services approaches these issues much differently now. “Tribes have better control [over the kids], and the state has better understanding.”

Since the Commission, the work continues to educate those who are involved with Maine Child Welfare — a greater effort to educate social workers so the problem doesn’t perpetuate into the future. A group of child welfare workers meet regularly for peer support, made up of tribal child welfare workers and state child welfare workers, and that has evolved into a co-management style. There are more tribal foster homes, and children are placed with another family within the reservation.

Today, more than 45 percent of all Native children in custody are living in kinship care, notes Jackie Farwell, communications director for Maine’s Department of Health and Human Services.

But, as Werrbach realized early in her career, Native people are not statistics. They are not numbers. They are human, and to connect with their stories on a heart level can be transformational.

REACH continues their wellness work, to make sure people know how to take care of themselves, to make sure that the Commission’s recommendations are implemented.

The members of the Maine Wabanaki-State Child Welfare Truth & Reconciliation Commission, from left to right: Gail Werrbach, Carol Wishcamper, Sandy WhiteHawk, gkisedtanamoogk, and Matthew Dunlap. (Photo Courtesy Gail Werrbach)

“The good news is, in terms of child welfare, with the new governor, the liaison group, the tribal child welfare group, they’ve continued to revamp the training for all of the state and child welfare workers,” notes Werrbach. “REACH has done a huge amount of work with allies across the state.”

All of these institutional shifts are rooted in awareness of the truth: The acknowledgement of cultural genocide, by the people who are living with the system and working in the system. Prior to the Commission and the report, there was still deep denial and misunderstanding.

Perhaps nowhere is the shift felt deeper than in those who have spoken their truths, who know those truths have been heard. Tribes and generations of families are telling truths to each other, listening, and healing.

“We should always be talking about repair and reparations through the lens of understanding the harm that has been done,” says Burns. As with Altvater and so many who have been through trauma, that harm goes through multiple generations. “As a white woman, how do I get my association to hear, and repair from a different level of commitment? How do we be different together? Our state officials had a lot of reticence around reparations from a bottom-line perspective, holding that as just writing a check. Reparations is so much more deeper and more engaging than that.”

The Wabanaki still have unresolved issues with the state, and some hope for more truth and reconciliation commissions to address them. But as far as child welfare goes, the truth is out and it’s being discussed. Those who want to make new statements or amend the statements they’ve already made can do so. REACH helps with that, preserving them in the archives at Bowdoin.

Lessons for Other Communities, Other Reckonings

In its report, the Commission makes it clear that their work should serve as an example for other groups seeking redress. To quote the report:

In his 2013 book, “In the Light of Justice,” an analysis of the U.N. Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, Walter R. Echo-Hawk outlines a process to “heal human suffering caused by a historical wrong” that includes a progression through acknowledgment of injury, to sincere apology, to acceptance of that apology, forgiveness of the wrongdoers, to concrete acts of atonement with a final step that involves the healing of unresolved grief and “open wounds” so that there is a “cleansing reconciliation for all concerned.” He concludes his book: “This can be a historic time in the growth of the nation. We have been given a rare opportunity to make things right. We can seize the chance for redemption that was beyond the reach of our forebears, if we heed the wisdom of our ancestors and take the transformative steps that lead to reconciliation.”

For places thinking about convening a truth-telling, Girouard’s advice is, “Keep it focused. Look at these issues one at a time.” Had the Commission decided to look at all the harm done to the Wabanaki, “We’d exhaust ourselves out,” she says.

“There were a couple things that were problematic with our Commission,” notes Werrbach. “Nobody put any money into it, so a huge part of the energy we put into it was raising money just to do the work, to pay the staff, to pay for mileage, food, a research coordinator, over nights for going up north or downeast. Any community thinking of it, they’re gonna [have to] ante up some money.”

In addition, Werrbach cautions against jumping straight into reconciliation. “The white people are dying to reconcile. ‘Let’s reconcile and [now] everyone loves each other.’ It’s such important work, and it’s hard work.”

“I think the biggest challenge is that white people, we want to go faster, fix faster, feel better faster,” she adds. “That’s just not how historical trauma works. So any cities or communities looking at similar kinds of commissions need to take a long-view time frame in anything they set up, and not get trapped in thinking people will be reconciled and move on. It’s been 500 years.”

“When you’re talking about the need for reparations, we have to listen with the sense of letting go of our own filter of what we think is right and not right,” says Burns. “Our [white] fixes would just be another form of colonization, because we don’t know how to be different than we are, until we learn to decolonize our own being. Listening is part of that, as we learn to understand in a different way.”

“There’s no real formula,” says Dunlap. “You start from scratch. And let the story be told.”

“Begin to get people together and talk about the truth and build that,” continues Burns. “There [must be] some process to love and support and care for people, as their stories get lifted up to understand the true history of what brought us here. That’s where transformation happens.”

Altvater cautions against adopting the popular notion of creating a safe space for people to talk about their trauma — when it’s done in a merely placating way. “Around the country, we see places where people have [those rooms set up at] conferences, workshops, and meetings.” Then it becomes, “I’ve spoken in front of thousands of people, and never really felt heard.”

“Establishing basic human safety makes sense as a basic starting point,” she adds, especially when it concerns people who are still active targets of, for example, police and racial violence.

Commissioner Sandy White Hawk says that truth and healing will happen when the people are ready. “You cannot heal during trauma. You can’t get over something that is still happening to you. It’s impossible. You don’t say to someone suffering from cancer, ‘get over it.’… There can be no reconciliation without healing.”

UPDATE: This story was amended to correct the fact that in January 2013, Maria Girouard was hired by Maine-Wabanaki REACH, not by the Penobscot Nation.

Valerie Vande Panne is a Next City Equitable Cities Fellow and a freelance writer. She travels extensively throughout the United States. Her work has appeared in Bloomberg, Columbia Journalism Review, In These Times, and Politico, among many other outlets. She is a former news editor of High Times magazine, and the former editor-in-chief of Detroit's alt-weekly, the Metro Times. 

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