Truth and Reconciliation with Native America

Truth and Reconciliation with Native America

Speakers: Esther Attean and Denise Altvater

Respondent: Siobhán McEvoy-Levy

Truth and Reconciliation with Native America was the fourth seminar in a series of seminars hosted by the Desmond Tutu Center and Butler University’s Center for Faith and Vocation.

10922289_10153332365487481_8520096137460452395_oEsther Attean, co-director of Maine Wabanaki REACH (Reconciliation, Engagement, Advocacy, Change, and Healing), Co-Founder of the Maine Wabanaki-State Child Welfare Truth and Reconciliation Commission process, and Passamaquoddy tribal citizen of the Wabanaki, began by sharing a history of U.S. policies towards Native America that most Americans have never heard.

Attean explains how the indigenous people of the United States are the most heavily legislated group, resulting in devastating impacts to native people. Legislative acts included forcing tribes to emigrate from native land to reservations, making it illegal to practice ritual ceremonies, partitioning and selling native territories, and forcing native children to attend assimilation schools that were far removed from their communities with the intent to “kill the Indian to save the man.” The intention of these legislated acts, she explains, equates to genocide as defined by the United Nations.

She continues by outlining how in 1978, congress passed the Indian Child Welfare Act, which was the first time the Unites States recognized that a child had a birthright to the tribe, and the tribe had a birthright to the child. Still, high rates of native children continued to be displaced and even removed from their families by the state of Maine well into the 1990’s. This prompted the creation of a tribal-state agreement which gave tribal people maximum participation in child welfare cases as well as a review by the federal government which found that the State of Maine’s Office of Family and Child Services was out of compliance with the Indian Child Welfare Act. In danger of losing federal funds, the State of Maine’s Office of Family and Child Services reacted by reaching out to the child and welfare workers from all of the tribes for help designing training to teach state caseworkers how to follow the law. This collaboration marked the first time tribal and state workers collaborated for the purpose of improving child welfare. Since then, the collaboration has resulted in historic impacts on policy, leading to the pursuit of a Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) in 2013 that sought to pursue truth, healing and change. It was the first official truth commission in the United States that addressed tribal child welfare issues. It also marked the first time in history that a truth commission was created by both parties anywhere in the world.

Denise Altvater, Co-Founder of the Maine Wabanaki-State Child Welfare Truth and Reconciliation Commission process and Passamaquoddy tribal citizen of the Wabanaki, begins by asking the question, “What happens to those who have survived this history?” As a survivor of the child welfare system she helped to reform, she answers this question by sharing her personal narrative that included torture, rape, starvation, and “not knowing how to be a human being.” She explains that with truth, healing, and change she was able be heard by people who believed her story, which was powerful, yet not enough to change the painful reality of the lives of her and her children. The failure of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission to include reparations as part of its purpose leaves much to be desired in the area of justice. She explains that it is important to understand that while there are people doing great things for the purpose of reconciliation, it’s still necessary to consider the life the victims were forced to lead. For her, resiliencies is the fact that she was able to overcome all the incomprehensible acts committed against her and stand before an audience, sharing her story.

The respondent, Siobhán McEvoy-Levy, Associate Professor and Chair of Political Science at Butler University and a Desmond Tutu Center Fellow, explains that the Truth and Reconciliation Commission represents a space for the articulation of a silenced history, creating a model that can be replicated for the purpose of social justice. She emphasizes the power of stories to work towards healing, and sometimes even bring about justice.

While the primary legacy of the TRC is for the Wabanaki children taken from their families to share their story in order to heal and embolden other marginalized groups to create their own commissions, it is hopeful that it will also be instructive to the majority community who lack knowledge and perspective of their own country’s past. In addition to the aim of the TRC’s impact on child welfare policy, McEvoy-Levy relays how those involved in the process see the potential for larger, unintended outcomes to surface. As pointed out by a member of Maine’s state legislature who said “Correcting the historical record is important for the United State’s national identity and our great experiment in democracy. The model of pretending it didn’t happen does not serve the advancement of the American experiment. Correction of the national record is important to serve the advancement of the ‘American experiment.’ In this way, the TRC serves as a mechanism for formally recording the 400-year-old dispossession and then encoding that truth into the larger narrative.

CLICK HERE to watch a video recording of the seminar.

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