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A Story of Forgiveness, a Moment of Grace

This letter about the Maine Wabanaki-State Child Welfare Truth and Reconciliation Commission by Arla Patch and Robert Shetterly was first published in the Lewiston Sun Journal.

The Maine Wabanaki-State Child Welfare Truth and Reconciliation Commission is in its first year in the state of Maine. Many Mainers are learning that we are the first state in the country to take this historic and deeply needed step of looking at what happened to native children in foster care, many of whom were forcibly removed from their native homes by state agencies operating under the assumption that Wabanaki children needed to be civilized in white homes.

The TRC’s five commissioners made their first visit to the Passamaquoddy community of Sipayik, at Pleasant Point near Eastport, in November to officially begin hearing native people tell their stories of what happened to them in the child welfare system and the impact that has had.

On Dec. 4, in the Hall of Flags of the state Capitol in Augusta another event took place that is a profound outgrowth of this TRC that I feel every Mainer, native and nonnative alike, deserves to hear about. And it was not what any of us expected who had planned the event.

The painter Robert Shetterly, creator of the decade long project of “Americans who tell the truth,” unveiled his two most recent works: portraits of Denise Altvater and Esther Attean, two Passamquoddy women who are core leaders for this movement. After speeches by Matt Dunlap, Maine’s Secretary of State, Robert, Esther and Denise, a former DHS worker who had taken native children out of native homes and placed them in white homes, stood up and asked for forgiveness. I’d like to share what happened in Robert Shetterly’s words:

“I want to describe something that happened yesterday that all of us who were there witnessed in part but that I think only Denise and I witnessed more deeply. 
We were all aware of the woman who rose in the audience at the end of the Q & A, identified herself as a former DHS employee and asked to be forgiven. Silence. 
You (Esther & Denise) did not say anything to her at that moment — how could you?

Could you have absolved her as though you were priests? Of course not. When the event concluded, I went over to her and thanked her for her courage to speak up, to expose her own guilt and remorse. She had just told me her name when Denise appeared and clasped her in a tight embrace. 
Then Denise drew back and kissed the woman’s right cheek, then her forehead, then simply rested her forehead against hers and held that position of bodies embracing, foreheads touching — a complete connection of body and mind — for a long time. Finally Denise took a half step back and continued to hold the woman’s hands, just looking into her eyes. Both women were in tears. 

Nothing was said. But because of the intimacy of it, I said to Denise — stupidly — “Oh, you must know each other?” Denise said, “No, we’ve never met.”
The woman began nervously talking about her career as a caseworker, how efficient she had been, how seriously she took the adoptions, how everyone came to her when they wanted something done. The more she said, the further we moved away from the intensity of the moment. The transformative communication had been physical, nonverbal, body language and eye contact.

I tried to understand later what had happened there. I could recognize the woman’s courage and her pain, but had no legitimacy to offer more. What Denise had done was deeply consoling. Denise gave her something that words could not and that could only come from Denise, for Denise, now in her early 50s, had been forcibly removed from her home at the age of seven along with five of her sisters. What she offered could only come from the heart and soul of the victim.

I have to assume that the woman felt forgiven. It was such a profound dynamic — Denise, still struggling with her trauma, very fragile herself, has the strength to comfort an agent of the state whose agency victimized her. The agent is humbled by her remorse; the victim is empowered with her ability to forgive, to heal. Both are ennobled by the integrity of what they have given each other.

In my talk earlier I had spoken about the immense darkness of the native genocide, how unfathomable is its pain and grief, how it makes a mockery of the democratic ideals of this country — which is why people don’t like to talk about it, admit its ongoing legacy; which is why a formal commission of truth and reconciliation is necessary.

And, here I was in awe of the immensity of Denise’s heart, her ability to reach out of that darkness to respond to another’s pain, and ironically it is the pain of a representative of the agency responsible for hers. Here was what the TRC is all about.

What happened was a moment of grace, a kind of matching of disparate but congruent pains that must be fit together if some healing is to take place. I then saw the TRC as a metaphoric alter, if you will, a sacred place which people can approach carrying whatever piece of this traumatic burden that they own, lay it down, and find reconciliation in seeing all those true pieces laid out together. 

If that had been the only thing that happened yesterday, I would have considered myself extraordinarily fortunate to have witnessed it. It, too, was just a piece. But a proof of the whole, of the wisdom of this project.”

Arla Patch is the community engagement Coordinator for Maine-Wabanaki REACH, the cross-cultural collaborative responsible for readying Maine for the work of the TRC Commissioners: www.mainewabanakireach.org. Robert Shetterly is a painter who created the “Americans who tell the truth” project, painting more than 200 portraits over the past decade.

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