‘Cultural genocide’: Wabanaki commission’s findings preserved in Brunswick

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BRUNSWICK — So far from her family, and so isolated by her foster parents, a young Georgina Sappier-Richardson believed sitting in a tub of bleach could turn her skin white.

Stories like Sappier-Richardson’s were unearthed by the Maine Wabanaki-State Child Welfare Truth and Reconciliation Commission, whose records are now preserved in the Bowdoin College Library’s special collections.

The commission was the first of its kind in the United States, created in 2012 by the governor and Maine’s five tribal chiefs, and charged with investigating the disproportionate removal of Native American children from their families.

They found that from 2002-2015, the state removed Native American children from their homes and into foster care at a rate more than five times higher than their non-native peers.

On Monday, April 11, commissioners, allies, and tribal members involved with the commission were at Bowdoin College to mark the archiving of the panel’s findings.

In its research, the commission compiled about 200 hours of video from 150 statements of removed children, tribal members, attorneys, judges, and state workers. Those recordings are now available to the public.

Their report says that the state must confront a legacy of forced assimilation through boarding schools and adoption projects, whose effects are still felt today in discriminatory practices around the delivery of child welfare.

Federal reviews in 2006 and 2009 found that about half of the children who went into foster care did not have their Wabanaki heritage identified, meaning children who should have been protected under the Indian Child Welfare Act – a federal law passed in 1978 that gives tribal governments more say in child custody cases – were not.

The report authors argue that the weight of the oral history gathered through testimonies shows that a “cultural genocide” – the intent to erase a cultural group – is still occurring.

To commemorate the opening of the archives April 11, four of the five commissioners, as well as many who participated in and supported the process, gathered at Bowdoin. They screened a portion of an upcoming documentary on the commission called “Dawnland,” and held a public discussion on the removal of Indian children from their homes.

One of the film’s subjects, Denise Altvater, who was also one of the principal architects of the commission, was in attendance.

Taken by DHHS

Altvater grew up in what she described as a “small shack” on the Passamaquoddy Reservation at Pleasant Point. It had no electricity or running water, and she, her mother, and her five sisters slept on mattresses in the attic.

One day, two cars, station wagons as she recalled, came up the dirt road leading to her house while her mother was away. Maine Department of Human Health and Services workers put the girls’ clothes in garbage bags, and loaded the children into the cars.

“I don’t remember anyone telling me what was happening,” Altvater said.

The children were taken to a foster home in Old Town. The woman who ran it, Altvater recalled, would abuse them: if they wet the bed, they would have to stay in it for 24 hours. When one of the sisters would run away, she’d be locked in a dirt cellar at night, and made to kneel on a broom handle during the day while the other foster children pulled her hair.

“I think the woman was like that because of what the man did to us,” Altvater said in a statement to the TRC. The unidentified man would rape them, “and I think she took it out on us.”

Georgina Sappier-Richardson recalled sitting in a tub of bleach with her sister, “(trying) to convince each other that we were getting white, and then (our foster parents) would accept us.”

“Where was the state,” she said. “You can’t heal someone who’s gone through hell.”

These stories and others can now be viewed online at digitalcommons.bowdoin.edu.

During the public discussion, a man in the audience said that he was angry that the practice of separating Wabanaki children from their families was “done in my name.”

“You’re angry,” Denise Altvater replied. “We’re angry all the time.”

The event concluded with a talk by Dr. Gail Dana-Sacco, a public health researcher and member of the Passamaquoddy Tribe.

“The work of the (commission) … has brought everybody to a bit of a threshold,” Dana-Sacco said. But she had questions about the process.

“What does forgiveness mean? Reconciliation?,” she said. “What about retribution?”

Without addressing those questions, “that information … what good is it,” she said.

Dana-Sacco ended by invoking the words of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.: “True peace is not merely the absence of tension; it is the presence of justice.”

The commission report contained several state recommendations, including respecting legal tribal sovereignty, developing trainings for agencies like the DHHS, and writing a policy to monitor compliance with the Indian Child Welfare Act with Maine’s tribes.

Martha Proulx, the state’s ICWA liaison, said some change can be seen. She cited “co-case management,” or working with a tribe when DHHS investigates reports of child abuse or neglect, as a positive development.

Maine-Wabanaki REACH, a collaborative that promotes best child welfare practice through reconciliation, engagement, advocacy, change and healing activities, is overseeing the implementation of TRC’s recommendations. It includes staff from the Maine Office of Child and Family Services, Wabanaki child welfare programs, Wabanaki Health and Wellness, and the Wabanaki Program.

As for the physical documentation of the many stories that drove the commission’s findings, archiving them at Bowdoin’s special collections assures those voices will be preserved for generations to come, Commissioner Carol Wishcamper said.

“The archive,” she said, “would long outlive the (commission’s) short moment in history.”

Walter Wuthmann can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 100 or wwuthmann@theforecaster.net. Follow Walter on Twitter: @wwuthmann.

Children play at the Sipayik Passamaquoddy Reservation at Pleasant Point. A 2015 report by the Maine Wabanaki–State Child Welfare Truth and Reconciliation Commission found Native American children in Maine are removed from their homes at a rate five times higher than other Maine children.

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Brunswick/Harpswell reporter for The Forecaster. Bowdoin College grad, San Francisco Bay Area native. Follow for municipal, school, community, and environmental news from the Midcoast.
  • Charles Martel

    When the several waves of migration occurred from Asia across the Bering
    footbridge to this area 12,000+ years ago, was that a period of global cooling
    or global warming?

    Isn’t history all about one civilization conquering and dominating other
    cultures?

    Should the Wabanaki tribes really be placed in the same cultural genocidal
    category as Darfur, Rwanda, Armenia, Cambodia, Bosnia and the Holocaust for
    examples?

    Did the 500 or so Native American tribes ever go to war with each other and
    rape, torture, murder, pillage and capture slaves from the vanquished?

    Did the Aztecs, Mayans and Incas ever perform human sacrifices before the
    Europeans arrived or only after?

    How is it that European cultural genocide is a bad thing but resettling
    thousands of Somali Muslims into the French community of Lewiston a good thing?

    Will there be a request for further reparations such as the $3.4 billion
    settlement in 2012?

    Michael Savage is fond of saying that, “liberalism is a mental disorder”. Did
    this disorder manifest itself into liberal white guilt once again at Bowdoin?

    • Noreplyneeded

      Regrdless of what natives did amongst themselves they did not decimate each other like the Whites did when they showed up.
      Let me come and take your children for no good reason but to strip them of their culture and make them exactly like me and practice my religion so they are exactly like me. You people are gross. You dislike the differences in culture and thinking unless it is exactly like yours.
      Whites always find a way to make what they do to others ok!
      White guilt is just that-removal of out children still continues today but that is ok because it doesn’t affect you.
      How elitist.
      I hope we get every penny Whites owe us and stole from us. Obviously you want to sweep the transgressions under the rug so no guilt. Classic White elitist mentality

      • Charles Martel

        I guess you didn’t read the first sentence of my post. From what I can tell, your response falls into the same category as black reparations for slavery which I had nothing to do with. You can whine all you want and accuse me of racism. It’s ancient history. Get over it.

        • Noreplyneeded

          Lol! Reparations for Blacks has nothing to do with monies owed to Natives. You are truly ignorant! If I rent you land and you don’t pay and then try to cover up the fact that you rented from me, you are a liar a cheat and a thief, and when I take you to court for it and win, you now have to pay me, which is just one instance of the fraud from the Whites.
          If you steal my land and I can prove it in court, I will win it back.
          All you people see is White and Black. And it isn’t acient history because it is still going on now so please re-read the article.

          • Charles Martel

            Apparently you have more affection for Sharia-adherent Muslims from Somalia than you do for French Christians. Good luck with that. Do you follow what’s going on in Europe with the invasion of refugees there?

            More on point from the NY Times of all places:

            “The researchers, whose work is regarded as the most comprehensive yet, say their findings in no way diminish the dreadful impact Old World diseases had on the people of the New World. But it suggests that the New World was hardly a healthful Eden.”

            See the full article here:
            http://www.nytimes.com/2002/10/29/science/don-t-blame-columbus-for-all-the-indians-ills.html?pagewanted=all

          • Noreplyneeded

            What do you think you Frenchmen did when you got here? Same damn thing only worse. Keep your head in the sand it’s warm and comfy there

          • Charles Martel

            You’re a revisionist pseudo-historian. Ever read a book by David Kuperlian titled, “The Snapping of the American Mind”? You’ll understand political correctness, multiculturalism, social justice, liberation theology and so on are just re-hashed Marxism blaming America and the West for everything evil. Unfortunately, for you and the progressives who own our culture, the mainstream media and government, disinformation and deception won’t work anymore.

          • Noreplyneeded

            LMAO!! Whites did the same thing to us but now that it is happening to YOU- you don’t like it.
            How ironic. The hens have come home to roost.
            You bible thumpers want YOUR religious beliefs etc to be inserted into everyones life.
            Are you aware that Whites first came here to escape religious persecution? Seperation of church and state-for a reason.
            The pledge of allegiance didn’t say anything about your god until it was inserted there by others.

          • Charles Martel

            That’s “chickens”, genius.

          • Noreplyneeded

            Nope! Chickens can’t roost, hens do. But maybe french ones do-lol

          • Noreplyneeded

            1892 (first version) [1]
            “I pledge allegiance to my Flag and the Republic for which it stands, one nation, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all.”
            1892 to 1923
            “I pledge allegiance to my Flag and to the Republic for which it stands, one nation, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all.”
            1923 to 1954 [1]
            “I pledge allegiance to the Flag of the United States of America and to the Republic for which it stands, one nation, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all.”
            1954 (current version) [2]
            “I pledge allegiance to the Flag of the United States of America, and to the Republic for which it stands, one Nation under God, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all.”

          • Charles Martel

            Thank you for the history lesson.

          • Noreplyneeded

            You need it

          • Charles Martel

            Members of the victim classes are like water which seeks the least path of resistance. If it’s easier to blame others for their condition, then why obtain a good education or work hard? Suing others or petitioning for subsidies or reparations is a lot easier. And, with sympathetic progressives to carry the torch for your misguided agenda, why not?

          • Noreplyneeded

            Speak for your own French culture, no victim here. You people have your stereotypes too. When all else fails, insult – eh?

          • Charles Martel

            Eh? Isn’t that an insult? This discussion is going nowhere because you are looking for payback. The French in Lewiston aren’t. Btw, Charles Martel is a pseudonym for Charles “The Hammer” Martel who defeated the Islamic invaders at the Battle of Tours in 732AD, genius.

          • Noreplyneeded

            Americans are undermining America. Whites are known for being self destructive no help needed. We just sit back and watch.
            “Yet, hear me my people, we now have to deal with another race, small and feeble when out fathers first met them but now great and overbearing.
            Strangely enough they have a mind to till the soil and the love of posession is a disease with them.
            These people have many rules that the rich may break but the poor may not.
            They claim this mother of ours, the earth, for their own and fence their neighbors away; they deface her with their buildings and refuse.
            That nation is like a spring freshet that overruns its banks and destroys all who are in its path.”
            -Sitting Bull
            Powder River Council of 1877-

          • Noreplyneeded

            Take heed to your own words.
            CBS will have a segment on the Somali’s immigration to Lewiston tonight and here is an old article of what the Somali’s did for the predominately French, crime ridden, dying town of Lewiston.
            U.S.
            LEWISTON, MAINE, REVIVED BY SOMALI IMMIGRANTS
            BY JESSE ELLISON ON 1/16/09 AT 7:00 PM
            U.S.
            Barely a decade ago, Lewiston, Maine, was dying. The once bustling mill town’s population had been shrinking since the 1970s; most jobs had vanished long before, and residents (those who hadn’t already fled) called the decaying center of town “the combat zone.” That was before a family of Somali refugees discovered Lewiston in 2001 and began spreading the word to immigrant friends and relatives that housing was cheap and it looked like a good place to build new lives and raise children in peace. Since then, the place has been transformed. Per capita income has soared, and crime rates have dropped. In 2004, Inc. magazine named Lewiston one of the best places to do business in America, and in 2007, it was named an “All-America City” by the National Civic League, the first time any town in Maine had received that honor in roughly 40 years. “No one could have dreamed this,” says Chip Morrison, the local Chamber of Commerce president. “Not even me, and I’m an optimist.”

            Immigrants from Somalia may sound like improbable rescuers for a place like Lewiston. Maine is one of the whitest states in the country, second only to Vermont, and its old families have a reputation for distinct chilliness toward “outsiders.” And many of the immigrants spoke no English at all when they arrived. But even beyond the obvious racial, cultural and religious differences between the Muslim newcomers and the locals, the town’s image had become so negative that it was hard to imagine people choosing to move there. “Nothing could have rightfully prepared them,” says Paul Badeau of the Lewiston-Auburn Economic Growth Council. “And nothing could have rightfully prepared us, either.” It wasn’t easy at first. Townspeople feared for the few jobs that remained in the area, and they warned that the strangers would overload local social services. In 2002, the then Mayor Laurier Raymond wrote an open letter to the Somali community begging them to stop encouraging friends and family to follow them to Maine.

            The center of town still has pawnbrokers and bars, but now there are also shops with names like Mogadishu and Baracka, with signs advertising halal foods and selling headscarves and prepaid African phone cards. “Generally, refugees or migrants that come into a town give a new injection of energy,” says Karen Jacobsen, director of the Forced Migration Program at Tufts University’s Feinstein International Famine Center. “Somalis particularly. They have a very good network [with strong] trading links, and new economic activities they bring with them.” Retailers sell clothes and spices imported from Africa; other entrepreneurs have launched restaurants and small businesses providing translation services, in-home care for the elderly and other social services. There’s even a business consultant. “Increasingly, there’s an acceptance that immigration is associated with good economic growth,” says urban-studies specialist Richard Florida, director of the University of Toronto’s Martin Prosperity Institute. “How is Maine going to grow? It’s a big state with a sparse population. One of the ways to grow quickly is import people.”

            Commerce isn’t all the Somalis are reshaping. Maine has America’s highest median age and the lowest percentage of residents under 18. Throughout the 1990s, the state’s population of 20- to 30-year-olds fell an average of 3,000 a year. Demographers predict that by 2030, the state will have only two workers for each retiree. “In many small Maine towns they’re looking at having to close schools for lack of schoolchildren,” says State Economist Catherine Reilly. “It will snowball. Right now we’re seeing the difficulty of keeping some schools open; in 10 or 15 years that’s going to be the difficulty of businesses finding workers.” The same ominous trend is seen in other states with similarly homogenous demographics and low numbers of foreign-born residents—states like Montana, North Dakota and West Virginia. Reilly adds: “If you told a demographer just our racial composition, they would be able to guess that we’re an old state with a low birthrate.”

            Lewiston’s sudden jolt is reflected even in enrollment at local universities. Although University of Maine enrollment has dropped systemwide since 2002, the student population at its Lewiston campus jumped 16 percent between 2002 and 2007. And Andover College, which opened a campus in Lewiston in 2004, had to start expanding almost immediately to accommodate a boom in applications. Enrollment doubled in two years. The reason? “Young people didn’t want to go to a place that’s all white,” says Morrison. Practically everyone in Lewiston credits the Somalis’ discovery of their town with much of its newfound success. “It’s been an absolute blessing in many ways,” says Badeau. “Just to have an infusion of diversity, an infusion of culture and of youth. Cultural diversity was the missing piece.” The question is whether the rest of Maine—and other states like it—can find their own missing pieces.

          • Charles Martel

            Since the source is CBS it has no credibility. The Somalis who are Sharia-adherent Muslims are a Trojan Horse.

          • Noreplyneeded

            I have stopped reading your replies. You are no different than the Muslims. You want to cram your god down others throats, too.

          • Charles Martel

            Good. It was a waste of time for me. Who said I was a Christian?

          • Emma Fletes

            Shoved.

          • Noreplyneeded

            Shove your god down someone elses throat. I’m full

          • Charles Martel

            Mohammed’s followers will soon be forcing Allah down your throat if they don’t cut off your head first.

          • Noreplyneeded

            Just like the christians did to us. They want you Whites not us

          • Emma Fletes

            Uh no. Its agaibst islam to force. If it does its American made terrorism.

          • Charles Martel

            “It’s against Islam to force”? What does that mean?

          • Noreplyneeded

            Read the Koran a.k.a. their bible. Just like yours it says no violence. However plenty of all religions ignore and are violent. Plenty Christians are killing in the name of their god right here in the u.s.

          • Charles Martel

            I have read the Koran, Hadith and Sira as well as the Reliance of the Traveller. Jihad is prescriptive and has been an integral part of Sharia law for 14c. The “Tears of Jihad” estimates 270m have been killed by Muhammed’s followers. Christians have been violent at times but its not inherent in its Canon.

          • Emma Fletes

            White devil wont hear a word you say.

      • Chew H Bird

        Actually, the Native Americans decimated my maternal family, (more than once)… Sold some into slavery, and killed others… And yes, it was in Maine.

        That said, there is no excuse for our mis-treatment of Native Americans as outlined in this article.