INDIAN ISLAND, Maine – When Denise Yarmal Altvater talks about the torture and abuse she and her younger sisters suffered as Indian children in foster care in Maine, the story is so painful to hear that it is impossible to imagine how those little girls lived through it.
On May 24, Altvater, a member of the Passamaquoddy Tribe and the Maine Indian Tribal State Commission, participated in a public ceremony to launch a Truth and Reconciliation process that will help heal her and others like her, who experienced the same awful separation from their families and communities and the brutality of a government child welfare system whose negligence could—or perhaps should—be considered criminal.
Chiefs of the Wabanaki nations, Maine Gov. Paul LePage and Altvater signed a Declaration of Intent to Create a Maine/Wabanaki Truth & Reconciliation Process, a process meant to heal people from the traumatic experience of the past behind and move toward the best possible child welfare system for Wabanaki children. “Wabanaki” means ‘the people of the dawn” or ‘first light.” The Wabanaki nations are the Houlton Band of Maliseet Indians, the Aroostook Band of Micmacs, the Passamaquoddy Tribe at Indian Township, the Passamaquoddy Tribe at Pleasant Point, and the Penobscot Indian Nation at Indian Island. A Truth & Reconciliation Commission will be created as part of the process.
For more than a decade, Altvater and other indigenous Wabanaki women have worked with a Truth and Reconciliation Convening Group of individuals from the Maine Tribal Child Welfare, state Department of Health and Human Services Office of Child and Family Services and staff from the Muskie School of Public Services, American Friends Service Committee and Wabanaki Mental Health Association to bring the Truth & Reconciliation project forward.
“In this process I’ve always used my name Yarmal because I think my two sisters need to be remembered and had we not gone through what we did, my two sisters would be alive today,” said Altvater. Her two sisters, who lived until their early forties, died of lingering trauma-related causes connected to their early abuse. When Altvater joined the working group 13 years ago she came to the table with mistrust, anger and fear, she said. “I came as an adult with childhood memories of all the torture and abuse I suffered as a young child, as a little girl.”
Altvater and her sisters were placed in foster care with a non-tribal family near Indian Island when she was eight years old. When she began working with the Convening Group 13 years ago, Altvater said she came to the project “full of childhood memories about the abuse and torture that I suffered in a foster home for four years as a young girl.” The abuse included ongoing sexual molestation and nights locked in a dark cold cellar in the foster home, she said. Attempts to tell the state what was happening fell on deaf ears, Altvater said. No charges were ever brought against the couple that abused her and her sisters.
Taking control of her own narrative has helped in the healing process, she said. “It’s been 13 years since I told my story. I didn’t even know it needed to be told. Since then I’ve learned to feel, care, love and most of all strive to become the person the Creator meant for me to be when I was born. Healing is not going to be easy, but it will transform all of us,” Altvater said.
Altvater works with the American Friends Service Committee, the Muskie School of Public Service and the Maine Indian State Tribal Commission to help the healing process for others with similar experiences.
“Everyone wants to know what the goal of this project it,” Altvater said. “For me, it is about healing, education and learning. It is about changing how we do our work in the future so that every child we are responsible to protect is treated with kindness and dignity and given the best we have to offer so they will have a place that is always safe.”
The Maine Tribal-State Child Welfare Truth & Reconciliation Commission (TRC) will be the first of its kind established in the country, said Penobscot Chief Kirk Francis.
“This is truly a historic event,” Francis said at the ceremony. “This TRC process is unique in that parties on both sides have come together with the best interests of Wabanaki children and families at heart. It is a model of collaboration that can be replicated in other areas of tribal-state relations in Maine and has the potential to be a model for other states as well.”
Francis said that Indian children were punished for being native. “They wanted to assimilate them and make Native people like everyone else. The TRC will assure that past atrocities will never happen again and our children have the right to stay Wabanaki and stay connected to that. My hope is this collaboration and support on both sides will serve as a model for how to respect each other and overcome our difference while acknowledging our past.”
The TRC is driven by three key purposes: to create a common understanding between the Wabanaki and the State of Maine concerning what happened and what is happening to Wabanaki children in the welfare system; to act on the information revealed during the TRC to implement changes to improve the system; and to promote healing both among Wabanaki children and their families and the people who administered the abusive system.
Governor Paul LePage, who visited Indian Island for the first time in many years, said the signing of the Declaration of Intent is “an important step to allow the commission to establish its mandate and get to work.” He talked about his own youth when, unlike Indian children who were taken from their homes, the decision to leave home was his. The TRC project is “long overdue,” LaPage said. Although there have been abuses in the past and “the system has had a negative impact,” Maine’s child welfare program is now committed “to protecting the rights, dignity and traditions of the tribes” while delivering needed services to all children and families, LePage said.
“We are one state. We are one people. And we share similar backgrounds,” LePage said. The governor said he visited Indian Island on several occasions years ago when he was a student at Husson College in Bangor, and that he spent 10 years working for a lumber company and living with the Maliseets in New Brunswick after graduating.
Truth & Reconciliation Commissions have been established in various places around the world, most notably in South Africa to deal with the violence and human rights abuses that occurred under the Apartheid system. The idea is to work through acknowledgement of the wrong doings toward healing and reconciliation, reparations and institutional reform. In Maine the TRC may include public testimony from the victims, comprehensive reports by the commission, and policy recommendations. The commission’s work will be helped by the Andrus Family fund, which has provided financial support for the project. More information about the Maine Tribal Truth and Reconciliation Commission is available online at www.mainetribaltrc.org.