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Maine 'Truth and Reconciliation' Panel Begins Probe into Indian Adoptions
02/13/2013   Reported By: Susan Sharon

In South Africa, a Truth and Reconciliation Commission was established in 1995 to help deal with the effects of apartheid. In Argentina and Chile similar commissions investigated alleged human rights abuses in the 1980s and 90s. Amnesty is sometimes granted to alleged abusers. But that won't be the case in Maine, where a Truth and Reconciliation Commission has been created to uncover the truth about what happened to Wabanaki children forced into foster care. As Susan Sharon reports, the commission this week began what is expected to be at least a two-year process.

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The five members of Maine's Truth and Reconciliation Commission aren't judges or lawyers. They don't have subpoena power, can't assess liability or guarantee immunity from prosecution.

And until recently, at least one of them wasn't even aware that, for several decades up until the mid-1990s, native children were plucked out of their communities, forced to give up their language and culture and relocated with white foster families in what is now widely viewed as a misguided attempt to improve their education and welfare.

Sandy White Hawk: "My name is Sandy White Hawk. I'm a Sicangu Lakota from the Rosebud Reservation. I currently live in Minnesota and I'm the founder and director of First Nations Repatriation Institute.""

White Hawk is also one of the newly-seated members of Maine's Truth and Reconciliation Commission. She was brought on board, in part, because of her experience bringing Indian adoptees, their biological families and social workers together. She was also chosen because she, herself, is an adoptee from South Dakota.

"I was born on the Rosebud Reservation and adopted out when I was 18 months old and raised by a white missionary family," she says. "They moved when I was six to Wisconsin, where I was primarily raised. I went home and met my family and took my first steps on my homeland again in 1988."

White Hawk was 35 years old at the time. She says she took one look at the sign that said Sicango and instantly felt like she could breathe again. It was the beginning of a spiritual journey to reconnect with her heritage.

Wearing long, beaded earrings and moccassins, White Hawk appears to have found her way back. But she says hundreds of other native children have not. Some estimates suggest as many as one in four were taken from their tribal homelands and forced into foster care.

The job of Maine's Truth and Reconciliation Commission will be to try to shed light on what happened here in Maine. The effort, which got underway with the seating of the commissioners this week, is expected to take 27 months.

"I was not familiar with the idea that this was a programmatic issue, that this was done as part of public policy, that you'd break up native families - that's pretty striking and I think that's probably why we're here today," says Maine Secretary of State Matt Dunlap.

Dunlap is also serving on the commission, which represents an historic collaboration between Indian nations and a state government, in this case under the leadership of Gov. Paul LePage. The group will be traveling to five tribal territories around the state and taking testimony from people affected by Indian adoption, including foster parents and social workers who took part.

Dunlap says there are some fears about what this could mean for the state in terms of restitution. Included in the history of Wabanaki adoptions are allegations of physical and sexual abuse.

"People outside of state government have said, 'Is this going to lead to reparations?' Well, that's not part of our charge," Dunlap says. "If somebody wants to seek financial damages they can do that now. They don't have to wait for a commission report.

Susan Sharon: "They could file a lawsuit."

Matthew Dunlap: "Absolutely. That's not within our power to make recommendations like that."

But the issue of prosecution has been a thorny one for other Truth and Reconciliation Commissions, especially when no one is ultimately held criminally responsible for the crimes that come to light. That was the case in Greensboro, North Carolina, where a commission was formed to investigate a 1979 social justice rally in which five people were killed and 10 others injured by members of the Ku Klux Klan and other white supremacists.

Pat Clark was a member of the commission created in 2004 after two criminal trials. "So those two criminal trials, no one was found guilty," Clark says. "Ultimately, in a third trial that was a civil trial, the police and a couple of white supremacists were found liable for the murder of one of the five people. So for over 25 years there were these victim survivors who felt like justice had not been served."

Clark says in the end the Greensboro commission produced a 500-page report with recommendations to prevent a similar incident from ever happening again. Clark says it's often the small things, the acknowledements of wrongdoing, the apologies, the expressions of support for each other, that do the most good. But she says, ultimately, it will be up to the state of Maine to decide what to do with the information once the commission has finished its work.


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