The Maine Wabanaki-State Child Welfare TRC investigated the removal of Wabanaki children from their communities from the 1970s onward. Cultural genocide in the form of boarding schools and forced assimilation has resulted in historical trauma among other lasting implications.
Problems and Purpose
The Maine Wabanaki-State Child Welfare TRC sought to investigate the forced removal of Wabanaki children from their communities and its effects, which have continued to be disproportionate to non-Native children. The Commission set out to make recommendations that, according to its Declaration on Intent, “promote individual, relational, systemic and cultural reconciliation” .
This TRC is the first in the United States in which two parties agreed to come together to pursue answers to difficult questions, and it is one of the first in the world to examine issues of Indigenous child welfare. It classifies the events as cultural genocide and notes that adopting the Indian Child Welfare Act (ICWA) was a step toward upholding tribal rights, however, effective implementation was another issue entirely, which many states struggled with . As such, the Maine Wabanaki TRC committed to uncovering the truth about child welfare practice as it affected Maine’s Indigenous population and hoped to create opportunities to heal and learn from what it heard and discovered .
The TRC process sought to:
1. Give voice to Wabanaki people with experience in child welfare
2. Give voice to state and tribal child welfare staff, care providers and the legal community in regard to their work with Wabanaki families
3. Create and establish a more complete account of the history of the Wabanaki people in the state child welfare system
4. Work in collaboration with Maine-Wabanaki REACH to provide opportunities for healing and deeper understanding for Wabanaki people and state child welfare staff
5. Improve child welfare practices and create sustainable changes in child welfare that strive for the best possible system
6. Formulate recommendations to state and tribal governments and other entities to ensure that the lessons of the truth are not forgotten and to further the objectives of the Commission
7. Promote individual, relational, systemic and cultural reconciliation
The Report separates its historical context into three sections: first, from the 1960s to 2013, it explains the introduction and implementation of the ICWA. Second, it examines the implications of the ICWA for child welfare practices from the 1960s to 2013. Finally, it highlights tribal and state sovereignty and jurisdiction, such as the Maine Indian Claims Settlement Act (MICSA) of 1980 and the Adoption and Safe Families Act (ASFA) of 1997. It notes the inextricable interconnectedness of the many aspects of child welfare practices, however, it indicates that the separation of the events into sections seeks to effectively explain a complex, multi-layered system to a new audience .
Background History and Context
The United States, which was once home to almost thirty Indigenous tribes, is now only home to four. Though the national Indigenous population has depleted by 96 percent, Wabanaki families still live in Maine, despite the harms inflicted upon them leading up to and throughout the twentieth century.
The Maine Wabanaki-State Child Welfare TRC sought to investigate the removal of Wabanaki children from their communities and its effects. Similar to the Indian Residential Schools system in Canada, boarding schools and forced assimilation characterized the treatment of Wabanaki children in Maine from the 1970s onward.
Upon conducting research, the Commission found that the rate of removals of Wabanaki children from their homes was exceptionally high . In 1976, the American Indian Policy Review Commission of the United States Congress noted that in Aroostook County in 1972, one out of every 3.3 Indigenous children were in state foster care and the rate of removal for Indigenous children was 62.4 times higher than it was for non-Indigenous children . The Policy Review Commission went on the note that Indigenous children in Maine were placed in foster care at a rate: 
- 25.8 times higher than non-Indigenous children in 1972
- 20.4 times higher than non-Indigenous children in 1973
- 19 times higher than non-Indigenous children in 1975
Widespread understandings of Wabanaki people from the 1940s onward helped facilitate their forced assimilation. According to state-generated archival materials, Wabanaki people were characterized as careless with regard to themselves, their homes, and their land, and were referred to as “needy Indians” . There is a record of state leadership referring to Indigenous people as “the largest parasite on the state,” and claiming that “the ‘Indians themselves’ are looking forward to dissolution” .
In 1978, the United States passed the ICWA, which sought to advance the criteria for removing Indigenous children from their homes in an attempt to maintain cultural and linguistic connections to kin and tribe . However, in the thirteen years preceding the Commission, Wabanaki children in Maine had entered foster care on average at 5.1 times the rate of non-Indigenous children, and federal reviews in 2006 and 2009 indicate that sometimes up to half of all children coming into care do not have their Native heritage verified . From 1960 to the time of the Commission’s operation, the percentage of Indigenous children in state care remained at approximately four percent.
The Commission’s Report argues that the state was slow to engage with ICWA and, that despite multiple efforts by Wabanaki and non-Indigenous people to shift policy and belief, Wabanaki culture and sovereignty have not been fully considered and thus families and children have suffered cultural genocide .
Organizing, Supporting, and Funding Entities
The Commission received no funding from the state of Maine or from the tribal governments; rather, it was funded by private donors and Maine-based and national foundations .
The Commission cites the following donors as having funded the TRC process:
- Andrus Family Fund
- Anonymous (2)
- The Bay & Paul Foundations
- Betterment Fund
- Broad Reach Fund
- Samuel L. Cohen Fund
- Ewell Fund
- W.K. Kellogg Foundation
- Emanuel & Pauline A. Lerner Foundation
- Margot and Roger Milliken
- Elmina B. Sewall Foundation
- Doree Taylor Charitable Foundation
- And many individuals, church groups, and schools who donated additional funds
Participant Recruitment and Selection
The TRC consisted of five Commissioners:
- Matthew Dunlap, Maine’s 49th secretary of state
- gkisedtanamoogk, Co-Chair, Wampanoag from the community of Mashpee located on Massachusetts’ Cape Cod and family member of Nkeketonseonqikom, the Longhouse of the Otter
- Dr. Gail Werrbach, faculty member at the University of Maine School of Social Work
- Sandy White Hawk, a Sicangu Lakota adoptee from the Rosebud Reservation in South Dakota and founder and director of First Nations Repatriation Institute (FNRI), which serves as a resource for adoptees/fostered individuals and birth relatives
- Carol Wishcamper, Co-Chair, who works with non-profit organizations in Maine and formerly chaired the Maine State Board of Education
And four additional staff:
- Charlotte Bacon, Executive Director
- Erika Bjorum, Research Assistant
- Rachel George, Research Coordinator
- Maureen Harris, Project Support Specialist
What Went On: Process, Interaction, and Participation
The Commission gathered 159 statements from individuals and people who spoke jointly, though 27 percent came forward anonymously; 95 of whom were Indigenous and 64 non-Indigenous . According to the Report, statement providers are representative of those who lived in foster care and were adopted, tribal leaders and state officials, adoptive parents and Wabanaki elders, current and former Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS) staff, tribal and state attorneys and judges, and family members .
The Commission had 13 focus groups and held interviews in-person and over the phone with approximately 15 people, including the Chief Justice of Maine and nuns and priests who served in Wabanaki communities.
Statement providers recalled harsh examples of reality in state care . Reports of being confined, being denied food and water, and harsh forms of punishment designed to expel Wabanaki culture characterized the experiences of many victims, which oftentimes led to historical and generational trauma and the dissolution of Wabanaki culture .
Official statements are available to the public in an archive at Bowdoin College .
Though the TRC process led to the discovery of some key findings, the process was affected by a number of limitations. Operating on a time constraint, the possibility of re-living historical trauma, language and linguistic limitations, incomplete data, and a lack of community involvement characterized some of the conditions of the TRC .
Operating in English limited the voices of certain groups, and many who were adopted out of their communities may not have been aware of the Commission . Also, the Commission did not have time to assess all of its archival material, some of which was inconclusive and, in some cases, incomplete . In addition, some Wabanaki felt that their communities were not ready for sharing these truths and were worried about a lack of support for providers . The process was not driven by communities at large, and some expressed disappointment that the Commission could not levy reparations or issue subpoenas like national TRCs . Finally, the Commissioners note that, though some of them were Indigenous, none were Wabanaki .
Influence, Outcomes, and Effects
The TRC made a total of 14 recommendations, concluding that Maine and the tribes must continue to confront: 
1. Underlying racism is still at work in state institutions and the public, which the state must work to counteract
2. The state must accommodate to support ongoing historical trauma, also known as intergenerational trauma, on Wabanaki people that influences the well-being of individuals and communities
3. The state must work toward educational reform and historical preservation beyond the mandate to maintain an open conversation and work toward healing
While it is difficult to quantify cultural change, Dunlap has since expressed that “tribes have better control” of child welfare and “the state has better understanding” of a tribe’s role . More Indigenous people are being recruited to pursue social work, and Restoration Engagement Advocacy Change Healing (REACH) works with state workers, churches, state agencies and communities to increase tribal involvement with ICWA . There is still much room for improvement; land and water rights are central to the discourse. While truth and reconciliation is, according to REACH, “a start to improving our relationships between tribes and colonizers and ancestors,” owning the history and implementing change remains to be necessary .
Analysis and Lessons Learned
The TRC sought to investigate the removal of Wabanaki children from their communities and its effects, which continue to be disproportionate to non-Native children today. Similar to Canadian Residential Schools, boarding schools and forced assimilation characterized the treatment of Wabanaki children in Maine from the 1970s onward and still affect communities, largely in the form of historical trauma and socioeconomic disadvantages. The Report also notes the devastating effects of the loss of language that resulted when generations of children were removed from their communities .
Upon conducting research, the Commission found that the rate of removals of Wabanaki children from their homes was exceptionally high . In addition, widespread cultural understandings of Wabanaki people from the 1940s onward helped facilitate their forced assimilation in the United States. Published in 2015, the Commission’s Report argues that the state was slow to engage with ICWA and, that despite numerous efforts, Wabanaki culture and sovereignty have not been fully considered and thus families and children have suffered cultural genocide .
The TRC recommended that underlying racism is still at work in state institutions and the public, which the state must work to counteract; the state must provide support for historical trauma, also known as intergenerational trauma, on Wabanaki people that influence the well-being of individuals and communities; and the state must work toward educational reform and historical preservation beyond the mandate to maintain an open conversation and work toward healing. While some of the Commission’s recommendations have led to change at the state and local levels, reconciliation is still in its early stages and there is a long way to go.
The Report includes a list of recommended readings, which has been reproduced below:
Colonial Genocide in Indigenous North America. By Andrew Woolford, Jeff Benvenuto, and Alexander Laban Hinton, editors; foreword by Theodore Fontaine. Durham, North Carolina: Duke University Press, 2014.
Education for Extinction: American Indians and the Boarding School Experience, 1875-1928. By David Wallace Adams. Lawrence, Kansas: University Press of Kansas, 1995.
Facing the Future: The Indian Child Welfare Act at 30. Edited by Matthew L.M. Fletcher and Wenona T. Singel. Lansing, Michigan: Michigan State University Press, 2008.
The Indian Child Welfare Act Handbook: A Legal Guide to the Custody and Adoption of Native American Children, Second Edition. By B.J. Jones, Kelly Gaines-Stoner and Mark C. Tilden. Chicago, Illinois: ABA Book Publishing, 2008. In the Light of Justice:
The Rise of Human Rights in Native America and the U.N. Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples. By Walter R. EchoHawk. Golden, Colorado: Fulcrum Publishing, 2010.
Unsettled. By Colin Woodard. Portland, Maine: MaineToday Media, 2014.
Unsettled Past, Unsettled Future: The Story of Maine Indians. By Neil Rolde. Gardiner, Maine: Tilbury House Publishers, 2004.
Beyond the Mandate: Continuing the Conversation. Report of the Maine Wabanaki-State Child Welfare Truth & Reconciliation Commission. Maine Wabanaki-State Child Welfare Truth & Reconciliation Commission, 2015. https://truthcommissions.humanities.mcmaster.ca/wp-content/uploads/2019/07/Maine-Wabanaki-2012.pdf
Vande Panne, Valerie. “Reflecting on the Maine-Wabanaki Child Welfare TRC Commission Five Years Later.” Native News Online, Nov 5, 2020. https://nativenewsonline.net/currents/reflecting-on-the-maine-wabanaki-child-welfare-trc-commission-five-years-later
 Beyond the Mandate: Continuing the Conversation. Report of the Maine Wabanaki-State Child Welfare Truth & Reconciliation Commission, Maine Wabanaki-State Child Welfare Truth & Reconciliation Commission (2015), 6.
 Ibid., 12.
 Ibid., 13.
 Ibid., 18.
 Ibid., 20.
 Ibid., 21.
 Ibid., 21-22.
 Ibid., 6-7.
 Ibid., 6.
 Ibid., 50.
 Ibid., 13.
 Ibid., 14.
 Ibid., 22.
 Ibid., 14.
 Ibid., 14-17.
 Ibid., 16.
 Ibid., 17.
 Ibid., 67-68.
 Valerie Vande Panne, “Reflecting on the Maine-Wabanaki Child Welfare TRC Commission Five Years Later” Native News Online (Nov 5, 2020).
 Beyond the Mandate, 19.
 Ibid., 20.
 Ibid., 50.
The first version of this case entry was written by Sarah Slasor, McMaster University.