June is the anniversary of the Maine Wabanaki State Child Welfare Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC). As we move into the summer months, and continue to explore the significance of the Indian Child Welfare Act (ICWA) in federal and state law, I am reminded of my own journey with REACH and the TRC.
In 2016 I moved from Tucson, AZ to Maine. I planned to get my master’s degree in Public Health but I really hoped that in the process I would begin to meet other Wabanaki people in the community. Embarking on a master’s program is an exciting endeavor in itself and I was eager to find my own way and build a community in this place I hoped to call my home, in so-called Maine. I consider myself lucky for the connections I already had at the time. Elise Bolda, who is a former board member at REACH, was my major professor. She had already participated in an Exploring Wabanaki Maine History program (as it once was known) and had connections to REACH. She has always been spectacular in making connections for students and there happened to be an opportunity in the FALL of 2017 through the Data Innovation Project (DIP) to work with the Tribal and Maine ICWA workgroup and Cutler Institute. This experience provided me with a profound awareness of how I am affected by colonization as a Wabanaki woman. In addition, it deepened my understanding of the critical issues faced by Wabanaki Tribes and Native American tribes across the United States.
In 2017, Wabanaki REACH was still Maine Wabanaki REACH and they had yet to become an official incorporated non-profit. It had been 2 years since the Maine Wabanaki State Child Welfare Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) had released their final report with findings and recommendations. Three of the recommendations of the TRC focused directly on ICWA in Maine:
- Develop Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS), legal and judicial trainings that go beyond the basic checklists and toolkits to recognize bias and build cultural awareness at all levels of leadership and accountability in ways that frame ICWA within historical context.
- With the counsel of the tribes, develop a policy to monitor regular compliance with ICWA, the selection of ICWA liaisons and the eventual provision of a supervisory-level staff member responsible for ICWA in each DHHS district office.
- Fund the renewal of the ICWA Workgroup and involve them in designing and implementing training so that all levels of leadership are involved; their work may well include training people on the new Bureau of Indian Affairs regulations being developed on ICWA.
The project set in front of us through these recommendations was being made real by the careful planning and crafting of the State and Tribal ICWA Workgroup and folks at Cutler. In order to ensure that the workgroup could monitor enforcement of the law, they needed to find out how to utilize the data that was available to them and what kind of variables to look for that could help inform training to Child Welfare staff and leadership and how to change policy within the agency to benefit children across the state. I was fortunate enough to work with Emilie Swenson from DIP, who was kind and guided me through our work. The more I learned through the research process the more I started to see how colonization affected all aspects of Wabanaki peoples lives. I saw the connections to my own life and the reasons I didn’t grow up in Maine. Those realizations were incredibly painful, heart-breaking and life-altering.
Coming to Maine to live and work and most of all, to give back what I could in service to my community was a big step. I understood that trust is important to these kinds of relationship building. I am so grateful to have had people that trusted me enough to let me into their lives and saw me in their community as a person that would uphold REACH values. As a result of that work, I wrote my capstone research paper on the TRC and the statements made by adults who were children in the welfare system. In addition, I was invited to give a talk about my research and the effects colonization has had on me and my family. Finally, it has led me to be a part of the REACH team as a member of its small but mighty staff.
My time working as a graduate student with the Cutler institute, DIP and the Wabanaki and State ICWA Workgroup was nothing short of transformative. This unique opportunity allowed me to contribute meaningful research, engage with people committed to the self-determination of Wabanaki Tribes, and to gain valuable insight into my own connections to my ancestry. If you would like to learn more about my capstone project or my Lightning Talk, you can find the links embedded into the titles below.