“For native people forced assimilation and acculturation distort our thoughts, feelings and actions creating a disconnect with our identity and traditions. We start to believe that there is something wrong with us. The truth is our resilience, strength, humor and intelligence have saved us from extinction, will enable us to heal from generational trauma and will restore our culture so we may thrive as the distinct, unique, beautiful people the Creator meant for us to be.”
For more than a decade, Esther Attean has spoken tirelessly to native and non-native people about the true history of America’s strategy of genocide toward indigenous people, how intergenerational trauma effects the lives of indigenous people, and how non-indigenous people continue to benefit from the strategies of destruction. She has presented at the United Nations, met with the United Nations Special Rapporteur for Indigenous People, given presentations in forums hosted by the International Center for Transitional Justice, traveled to Greensboro, North Carolina to learn from the people who created the first truth commission in the United States, and attended a course on truth commissions in Barcelona, Spain. By confronting history with clarity and respect, she has helped make it possible for both native and non-native people to hear and absorb these difficult truths and move forward together on a journey toward decolonization.
Since 1999, Esther, who works at the University of Southern Maine’s Muskie School of Public Service, has been part of a cross-cultural group to improve child welfare practices for Wabanaki children and families. With Esther’s leadership and vision, this group — Maine-Wabanaki REACH — established the first truth commission process with native people in the United States. The Maine Wabanaki-State Child Welfare Truth and Reconciliation Commission was ratified in 2012 by the five Wabanaki Chiefs and the Governor of the State of Maine and its work focuses on the experiences of Wabanaki people in the state child welfare system.
The youngest of seven children, Esther’s journey began in the community of Sipayik, Pleasant Point. Sipayik is a reservation that sits at the easternmost point of the United States, in Maine, across the St. Croix River from Canada. Located on the edge of a bay, it is the “place of the people who spear pollock”, the Peskamuhkahti, known as the Passamaquoddy.
For Esther’s parents Mary and William and their eldest children, English was a second language. Her paternal grandfather, a German man, abandoned his family when William was a young boy. Esther’s grandmother then went to work in the local sardine factory to support her children.
After serving in the Navy, William returned home at 21 and got married. To support his and Mary’s growing family, he opened a basket store, ran a Christmas wreath business, sold the fish from his two weirs to the sardine factory, and, when he was only 22, served as Sakom, or Tribal Chief. He was a brilliant man with a great sense of humor who helped people without judgment. As Sakom, he refused a new home, a luxury his constituents couldn’t afford. His death from alcoholism in 1988 at 57 shaped Esther’s thinking about the impact of oppression on her people.
Mary, Esther’s mother, was the only one in her family of 11 to stay in Sipayik, resisting the allure of employment away from the reservation that was offered through the Indian Relocation Act. (Many Passamaquoddy people left to work under the Indian Relocation Act, a law that looked like opportunity, but which was yet another strategy to separate indigenous people from their land.) Mary endured racism at the local high school, but loved learning and became the only Passamaquoddy in her class to graduate. She attended the University of Maine, but was never awarded a degree because the university would not accept her ancestral language for the foreign language requirement. A talented poet, writer, activist and listener, Mary, born in 1934, still lives in Sipayik.
During her freshman year in high school, Esther responded to the racism and bigotry she encountered by fighting. Despite getting into trouble a lot, she managed to pass her classes. In 1983, Esther moved with her mother to Old Town, Maine. On her first day at the new high school, Esther refused to stand for the Pledge of Allegiance. “I am not pledging allegiance to the flag that represents the killing of my people,” she told the principal.
When Esther graduated in 1985, her mother insisted she go to college. Esther went on to earn an Associate degree in Human Services, a Bachelor’s degree of Social Work, and a Master’s degree in Social Work. She married a Penobscot Indian man, completed her education, and worked while raising their four children and a grandniece. Since 2010 she has been a single mother.
For seven years, Esther worked for the Penobscot Nation, providing preventive, early intervention and community development services to families and young people. She was instrumental in the opening of a teen center and organized intertribal youth gatherings that taught life skills, tribal heritage, and explored issues of racism, oppression and intergenerational trauma.
Esther co-founded the activist group IRATE (Indigenous Resistance Against Tribal Extinction) to stop the exploitation of native spiritual practices, bring attention to the discharge of dioxin by paper mills into the Penobscot River, and encourage recycling. IRATE stopped the 85-year-tradition of a “Squaw Party” at a University of Maine fraternity and, through direct action, convinced the University of Southern Maine to establish a position to support native students.
Esther believes healing and justice are possible, and that all the people of Maine have a role in this important work. These values were shaped by her parents, siblings, best women friends, and community. She treasures the sense of belonging that came from growing up on the reservation – the cohesiveness, beauty, strength, sense of humor, and even the challenges, which her people still face.
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