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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.
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.”
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.