ELLSWORTH — What do Maine and Canada share, aside from a long border and cold winters? Apparently, truth commissions that help us all accept greater accountability for issues affecting Native people.

For the last six years, Canada has undertaken a truth and reconciliation process to examine what happened when First Nations children were forced to attend boarding schools.

On June 2, that commission released its final report and recommendations. The story drew attention and crowds of supporters across the country as the commissioners discussed their understanding that the resulting damage to individuals and communities constituted cultural genocide.


But fewer know that in 2013, Maine embarked on its own journey toward truth and reconciliation with Native people. As the Maine Wabanaki-State Child Welfare Truth & Reconciliation Commission, along with Matt Dunlap, Gail Werrbach and Sandy White Hawk, we were charged with examining the history and current situation of Native child welfare in this state.

Now, at our mandate’s end, we will release a report that assesses why, in spite of protections offered by 1978’s Indian Child Welfare Act, Native children are still removed from their homes at disproportionate rates.


From 2002 to 2013, these children were five times more likely to enter foster care than non-Native children, we discovered. Given a past of forced removals targeting Native communities, we, like our Canadian counterparts, interpret this data as a form of cultural genocide.

While these two commissions share an emphasis on education and the importance of understanding Native history, they differ in the way that they developed. Usually, only one side of a conflict promotes such an endeavor.

Nelson Mandela did not create South Africa’s famous truth and reconciliation commission with the support of his country’s white leadership. And the Canadian effort was funded with an award from a class-action suit filed by First Nations people to address harms inflicted by boarding schools.


But our commission has the distinction of being the first in the United States endorsed by both parties coming to the table as equals. For several years, tribal people worked with the state to develop a declaration of intent and then a mandate.

In June 2012, Gov. LePage and the five tribal chiefs representing the Maliseet, Micmac, Passamaquoddy and Penobscot signed that mandate, and in so doing, created a path for truth-telling, healing and change in how Native children receive child welfare services.


The Maine government’s participation meant that state employees could contribute to this work if they wanted to. To their and Maine’s credit, they did. We gathered 159 statements, and of those, over 60 came from the state. They were current and former caseworkers and supervisors in the Department of Health and Human Services, attorneys and judges, foster and adoptive parents, service providers and guardians ad litem.

Over 90 statements came from Native people, including people formerly in care, tribal child welfare staff and tribal leadership. We also held 13 focus groups in which 78 people participated, and we conducted interviews with many others.

While the scope of our process was far smaller than the nationwide events South Africa and Canada pursued, we represent something else significant: a sign that the state and tribes can cooperate and make progress. One of our findings is that when Native people and the state work at developing better relationships between agencies and tribal sovereignty is truly respected, better Native child welfare outcomes are more likely.

Staying committed while resolving difficulties makes the difference. As a former DHHS administrator put it, “You have to be in the same room! You have to have joint experiences, you have to go through joint struggles, you have to go through joint triumphs and then … it becomes more real. Relationships become more real. But if you just stop and start … you lose ground every time.”


We applaud all who spoke frankly about these painful topics because they cared about each other, children, Wabanaki culture and change.

We recognize that tribal-state relations are in turmoil. We wouldn’t have arrived at such a harsh conclusion as cultural genocide if all we’d learned was positive. We also know that people need time to understand this idea and urge everyone to read our report, published and available online Sunday, to better grasp our reasoning.

But even as we name this hard concept, we point out that Maine’s governor and the Wabanaki chiefs endorsed the need to explore and listen to what might arise. They signed this mandate without knowing what we would find. In making a decision to allow our work to progress, they showed themselves willing to face history, the present and the future with courage.

Only subscribers are eligible to post comments. Please subscribe or login first for digital access. Here’s why.

Use the form below to reset your password. When you've submitted your account email, we will send an email with a reset code.