International Justice

CJ354 Endicott College

Maine’s Indigenous Truth Commission Marks First Year

In 2011, members of the Wabanaki nations of Maine- Penobscot, Passamaquoddy, MicMac, and the Maliseet  partnered with non-native employees and Governor Paul LePage to establish a truth commission to investigate and document the trauma the nations underwent.  More specifically, the three year commission was created to look into the forced assimilation of the Wabanaki children as mandated by the state welfare system. The Maine Wabanaki-State Child Welfare Truth and Reconciliation Commission is the first of its type in the U.S., and  marked its one year anniversary in February.

The Maine welfare system had forced the removal of Wabanaki children from their families. As such, there is an inherent distrust and resentment among the Wabanaki nations of state institutions. Since the Wabanaki commission is a collaboration between the Wabanaki and the state of Maine, it appears that progress is being made toward bridging the enmity between the two parties. Moreover, the commission was created from the grassroots level. The commission’s creation was not simply a matter of someone from the top giving the order that it be implemented, but rather indigenous activists rallied for its creation. The enthusiasm of the Wabanaki community adds to the legitimacy, and hopefully the overall effectiveness of the truth commission.

The forced assimilation which Native American communities such as the Wabanaki had no choice but to endure included being stripped of their culture, heritage, and language so that they would adopt white culture. This policy of assimilation was tinged with racism, a complex of superiority, and the idea that Native American culture was inherently inferior. In the 1950’s the federal government created the Indian adoption project through which thousands of Native American children were forcibly removed from their homes and placed with white families. It was not until 1967 that Maine allowed Native Americans to vote in state elections. It was the last state to do so.  As such, the state of Maine’s role in the establishment of a truth commission marks the progress that has been made in relations between N.A.’s and Maine. For a state that fell dead last in upholding the rights of N.A.’s to take the helm in the establishment of a Truth Commission that explores the pain the N.A. community underwent, is an illustration of Maine’s new-found commitment to engaging in dialogue with the N.A. community, and its acknowledgement that the  N.A. community suffered a great deal(in part, because of Maine’s policies). Even though the wrongdoings of Maine are inevitably exposed through the commission, and it was practically a given that the commission would reveal Maine’s complicity, Maine’s government maintained its support.  Such support suggests that retelling, reconciliation and remembrance trump all considerations.

More than 200 people gathered for the official seating ceremony of the TRC  last year. This day of performance, ceremony, and prayer marked the start of a three year process. The five commissioners are of indigenous  and non-indigenous background. This TRC  is not simply one in which the aggrieved community relieves their stories and those outside of the community remain ignorant to their plight. The collaboration between those of indigenous and non-indigenous background illustrates that non-indigenous communities also feel that they have a stake in the commission, the commission’s importance is understood. It’s also noteworthy  that indigenous traditions play a large role in this commission. Oral storytelling and performance are all integral components of the commission. Despite repeated attempts by the government to denigrate N.A. culture, the Native Americans remained steadfast in adhering to their culture, and now can use their culture which was continually marginalized to aid them in the process of healing and remembrance. The incorporation of indigenous culture speaks to the strength of indigenous traditions in the N.A. community. This culture aided the N.A’s in overcoming their generations of suffering. Contrary to what federal/state governments tried to put forth, indigenous culture was not inferior.  As such, the incorporation of indigenous traditions is a show of their prominence, their capability, and perhaps more importantly the incorporation shows that the N.A.’s hold a great deal of pride in their traditions and are taking ownership of the TRC.

As the article notes, though the TRC is only tasked with examining the child welfare system, the commission can hopefully encourage future efforts to examine historical wrongs.  The article also discusses what the TRC needs to work toward. TRC must  expand its outreach efforts. It must secure further support from government and civil society in order to educate Maine’s citizens of the importance of a commission. Moreover, the commission must further streamline its agenda to determine how to engage in a  productive dialogue with indigenous and non- indigenous communities.  I  agree that the TRC should aim to reach out to as much people as possible. Regarding dialogue, I would argue that a productive dialogue may already be occurring because of the government’s role in the commission and the incorporation of non-indigenous commissioners. That being said, it would be great for Maine’s general populace to also get involved in a dialogue. I  hope there’s interest- the two-sided collaboration between both the indigenous and non-indigenous communities suggests that there is interest. I also wonder if the TRC might consider taking it’s outreach/dialogue to the national level. I have seen little to no media coverage of this commission, there are very few articles written about it. I think it’s important for all Americans to hear about what Maine is doing- while what occurred to the Wabanaki is very specific to Maine as a state, the plight of the Wabanaki  has resonance in the majority of N.A. communities. More widespread awareness would hopefully cause other states to create similar commissions. Finally, I wonder how the TRC will know when it has accomplished a productive dialogue. What constitutes a productive dialogue? Is a dialogue solely among inhabitants of Maine sufficient? Or must a dialogue about what occurred to the Wabanaki  include the broader American community? Could you argue that inclusion on the national level is unnecessary mainly because of the particularities of the Wabanaki and their story? Provided that the broader American populace is excluded from the dialogue, what would be the implications for national reconciliation between non-indigenous and indigenous communities and evaluating the overall success of the Wabanaki commission?


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