Maine, Tribes Seek 'Truth And Reconciliation'

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In Maine, an unusual and historic process is under way to document child welfare practices that once resulted in Indian children being forcibly removed from their homes. Many of the native children were placed with white foster parents. Chiefs from all five of Maine's tribes, along with Gov. Paul LePage, have created a Truth and Reconciliation Commission to help heal the wounds.

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The state of Maine is working to repair the damage of an American outrage. Maine is one of the states where authorities once took away the children of Native American families. They were placed in foster homes or boarding schools, supposedly for their own good. Maine Public Radio's Susan Sharon reports on a state effort to bring families back together.

SUSAN SHARON, BYLINE: In a sun-filled church basement, several dozen parishioners have spread out on folding metal chairs to hear Denise Altvater, a Passamaquoddy grandmother, recount the story she has told more than 40 times over the past year.

DENISE ALTVATER: We lived in extreme poverty when I was little and I remember going a lot of times without shoes, without boots, without jackets. I remember going three, four days without food. We had no electricity, no plumbing and we had no bathrooms. And I think that's one of the reasons that they used, to take us when we were children.

SHARON: It was the 1960s. Altvater was seven years old. State child welfare workers showed up while her mother was away. The next thing she remembers, she and her five sisters were loaded into a pair of station wagons and they were driven more than a hundred miles away to home of a white foster couple.

There, Altvater says, she and her sisters were physically and sexually abused for the next four years. Her experience inspired the creation of the Wabanaki Child Welfare Truth and Reconciliation Commission.

ALTVATER: I think every time I tell my story it has less and less power over me. That's where the reconciliation starts.

SHARON: But no matter how often she shares her history with strangers, Altvater has been unable to discuss what happened in detail with her mother or her sisters. And it's something that is not unique to Altvater or to Maine, says Sandy White Hawk, a Sicangu Lakota from the Rosebud Reservation in South Dakota.

SANDY WHITE HAWK: Every time I read a statistic, they say 25 percent of us were taken and I don't think that's accurate. I think it was much more than 25 percent.

SHARON: White Hawk is the director of the First Nations Repatriation Institute, which brings together Indian adoptees, their biological parents and even social workers. And she's a newly appointed member of Maine's Truth and Reconciliation Commission. White Hawk says it's not just survivors who need healing but those who facilitated the Indian adoptions.

WHITE HAWK: They really did believe that we would not return and that we would be better for it than to know our family, to know our ways, to know our language, to know our songs and our ceremonies.

SHARON: Maine's is the first Truth and Reconciliation Commission in the United States to address Indian child welfare policies. And Commissioner Matt Dunlap says there is some concern about what that could mean.

MATT DUNLAP: People outside of state government have said, you know, is this going to lead to reparations? Well, that's not part of our charge. If somebody wants to seek financial damages, they can do that now.

SHARON: But the commissioners don't have subpoena power. They won't cross-examine witnesses or assess liability. Nor can they grant immunity from prosecution if someone confesses to a crime. What they will do is take testimony from anyone who wants to give it, including foster parents and state workers. Therese Cahill-Low is the state director of Child and Family Services.

THERESE CAHILL-LOW: We are owning that we did something horrific. And we could just change the laws or the policies or we could actually dig deeper and learn what we did, I mean, the depth of what we did.

SHARON: The state ended the practice of forced Indian adoptions in the mid-1990s. Cahill-Low says Maine records are so shoddy it's impossible to know how many children were taken and how many returned home. For NPR News, I'm Susan Sharon.

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