‘It is who we are’: Freeport woman reflects on ‘stolen’ Native American children in new film

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FREEPORT — The removal of Native American children from their homes, and their placement with white families throughout the 20th century – considered “cultural genocide” by some – is the haunting focus of a new film to be screened twice next week at Merrill Memorial Library in Yarmouth.

Dawnland,” described as “a documentary about cultural survival and stolen children,” tells the stories of Wabanaki people in Maine who were taken by government agents from their homes in the name of child welfare and placed with white families, where they often endured “devastating emotional and physical harm by adults who mistreated them and tried to erase their cultural identity.”

One in four Native American children across the country were living in non-Native adoptive homes, foster care, or boarding schools as recently as the 1970s, the site states. Maine in 2013 formed a government-sanctioned Maine Wabanaki-State Child Welfare Truth and Reconciliation Commission – the first of its kind in the U.S. – in part to hear testimony from those who were impacted.

It was an eye-opening experience for Carol Wishcamper, a Freeport business consultant who was part of the five-member panel. The commission’s work is a focal point in “Dawnland,” an Upstander Project film that will be shown at the library at 215 Main St. in Yarmouth at 6 p.m. Wednesday, Feb. 6, and 1 p.m. Saturday, Feb. 9. Wishcamper will be available at the latter screening to take audience questions.

The event is free, but space is limited. Reservations are required, and can be made at mainewabanakireach.org/events.

After learning the commission would be formed, Wishcamper in a Jan. 23 interview at the library said she consulted friends and colleagues in the Wabanaki community about whether they thought her participation would be beneficial. Bolstered by their support, she applied for panel membership.

The group – made up of native- and non-Native Americans, including Maine Secretary of State Matt Dunlap – met for 27 months from 2013-2015. Wishcamper was its co-chairperson.

“It was basically to give folks an opportunity to talk about their experiences with child welfare,” Wishcamper said. “To talk about some of the trauma, and the theory being that if you can talk about it, then you can … do what you might need to do to be able to begin some healing.”

A federal review in 1999 found Maine “severely out of compliance” of the federal Indian Child Welfare Act, which was passed in 1978, Wishcamper said. The act stated that children were best off with someone in their family, and if that wasn’t possible, with some other family within that community, she said.

“Basically, the tribe is the child’s family,” Wishcamper explained; a white foster home would be the last resort, and that family would have an obligation to bring the child to tribal events.

But it was found in the years after 1978 that Maine social workers at intake often didn’t ask if the child had a Native American background, if the child or mother looked white, Wishcamper said.

“When a child was identified, the state had to reach out to the native communities, and work with the native child welfare workers, to get a placement,” she noted. “And that often didn’t happen.”

In a crisis situation, the welfare worker would place the child in the first available home. The child was in jeopardy, and the workers were doing what they felt was right at that moment, Wishcamper said.

That ultimately led to the 2013 formation of the commission, charged to not only help the difficult healing process with the Wabanaki, but also to present a report to the Maine Department of Health and Human Services’ Child Welfare Department about impacts from how the 1978 act was being implemented, and recommendations for how the system can work better with the Wabanaki, Wishcamper said.

Also, she said, “to encourage more acknowledgment of the … resurgence of culture within the tribal communities, and to promote that, and to really look at the fact that the practice of taking native children and putting them into white homes amounts to cultural genocide, not just here in Maine but throughout the country.”

The commission found Maine had improved its practices since 1999, but still had “much higher numbers of native children in care” compared with white youths, Wishcamper said.

That practice of assimilating native youth into mainstream American culture began in 1879 with the Carlisle Indian School in Pennsylvania, prompted by concerns that Native Americans would become extinct “without complete and rapid integration,” according to carlisleindianschoolproject.com.

Lt. Col. Richard Pratt’s idea behind founding the Pennsylvania school, where Maine Wabanaki children were sent, was to “kill the Indian to save the child, or to save the man,” Wishcamper said. “To get rid of the cultural habits, ways of dress, language … that was forbidden.”

An adoption project began across the country in the 1950s, through which Native American children were placed in white homes with the idea that they’d be better off and learn the ways of white people, Wishcamper said.

“Basically, it’s a massive assimilation program,” she explained, noting that a late 1940s United Nations covenant on genocide stated that removing children from one civilization to another was a way of ending that line of people.

As times have changed in the child welfare spectrum, family reunification as much as possible has become a rule, Wishcamper said.

Her participation on the commission was “life changing, in terms of being aware of how clueless I and most of the other people in Maine are about what the reality of life is in tribal communities,” she noted. “And the way that we as a dominant culture choose not to see; and when we do see, choose not to do anything about it.”

“I think that’s the value of ‘Dawnland,'” Wishcamper added. “It is introducing this (concept) to a much wider audience than our report did.”

She noted the film is particularly timely.

“We are now separating families at the (Mexican) border; we’re taking children away from their parents, some of whom may never find their way back,” she noted. “… People say, when they react to the border situation, ‘this is not who we are, as Americans.'”

But “it is who we are,” Wishcamper said. “It’s not flattering, but it is something that we have to look at about ourselves.”

Alex Lear can be reached at 780-9085 or alear@theforecaster.net. Follow him on Twitter: @learics.

Carol Wishcamper of Freeport co-chaired the Maine Wabakani-State Child Welfare Truth and Reconciliation Commission from 2013-2015. The panel, which heard testimony from Native Americans who as children had been removed from their homes, is a focal point in the new film “Dawnland.”

“Dawnland” will screen twice next week at Merrill Memorial Library in Yarmouth.

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A Maine native and Colby College graduate, Alex has been covering coastal communities since 2001, and currently handles Bath, Topsham, Cumberland, and North Yarmouth. He and his wife, Lauren, live in the Portland area, and Alex recently released his third album of original music.