INDIAN ISLAND, Maine — An unsettling piece of Maine’s history will be examined closely during the next three years by five people selected to investigate church and government assimilation practices that tore American Indian children away from their families and culture.
Members of the Maine Wabanaki-State Child Welfare Truth and Reconciliation Commission were announced Tuesday during a news conference on Indian Island, and their work will begin early next year. The members are:
• Matt Dunlap of Old Town, who on Dec. 4 was tapped to serve as Maine’s secretary of state, a post he also held from 2004 to 2010. He was named Maine Public Administrator of the Year in 2008 and served four terms in the Maine House of Representatives.
• Gkisedtanamoogk, a Wampanoag from the community Mashpee on Cape Cod, Mass. He is a family member of Nkeketonseonqikom, the Longhouse of the Otter, and is married with three children. Now of Orono, gkisedtanamoogk has been an adjunct instructor with the Native American studies and the peace and reconciliation programs at the University of Maine since 2005.
• Gail Werrbach, a 25-year faculty member at the University of Maine School of Social Work. She now is director of that school. She has researched and published articles on child mental health, community mental health training, Indian child welfare services and international social work.
• Sandra White Hawk, a Sicangu Lakota adoptee from the Rosebud Reservation in South Dakota. She founded the First Nations Repatriation Institute, an organization with the goal of creating resources for First Nations people affected by foster care who want to return home, reconnect and reclaim their identity.
• Carol Wishcamper has an organizational development consulting practice that works primarily with nonprofit organizations in the state. She has served as chairwoman of the state Board of Education and as a member of several gubernatorial and legislative study commissions.
The goal, according to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission mandate, which Gov. Paul LePage signed in June 2012 alongside Maine tribal leaders, is to “acknowledge the truth, create opportunities to heal and learn from that truth, and collaborate to operate the best child welfare system possible for Wabanaki children.”
Beginning in the late 1800s, the United States government established boarding schools for Native American children who were removed from their families in an attempt to assimilate them into American culture.
In the late 1950s, the Bureau of Indian Affairs and the Child Welfare League of America created the Indian Adoption Project, which removed Native American children from their families and tribes to be adopted by non-native families.
In 1999 the Wabanaki tribal nations joined with state child welfare officials to form the Truth and Reconciliation Commission with the goal of improving Maine’s compliance with 1978’s federal Indian Child Welfare Act, which set higher standards of protection for the rights of native children, their families and their tribal communities.
The five commissioners, who were selected by a 13-member committee, will travel to visit members of Maine tribes affected by these child welfare policies. They will gather documents, recordings and transcripts for preservation and make recommendations for improvements to the child welfare system. The commission will file a report on its final findings.
This is the first truth and reconciliation effort in the United States, according to the commission. Canada has its own under way.
Werrbach said the commission faces difficult, emotional work. It will be asking people to “open their hearts, open their souls, and tell their stories” about welfare policies that separated their families and subjugated their culture, Werrbach said, adding that she felt honored to “bear witness to that.”
Gkisedtanamoogk said he hopes the commission’s work will help to renew and strengthen the relationship between the state of Maine and the sovereign tribes that live within its borders.
“This work represents the possibilities of putting the relationship with the state and Wabanaki Nations on a footing that should have been the relationship all along — as partners,” gkisedtanamoogk said.