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Teaching with the Maine Wabanaki-State Child Welfare Truth and Reconciliation Archive

by Marieke Van Der Steenhoven, Special Collections Education and Engagement Librarian, Bowdoin College


How do you prepare to bear witness—even if from a distance—to genocide? Bringing the archive of the Maine Wabanaki-State Child Welfare Truth and  Reconciliation Commission (TRC) into a classroom environment demands engagement with this question and thoughtful consideration in developing learning goals to best prepare and support students learning about the Truth and Reconciliation process, specific to the Maine Wabanaki and more broadly.

The TRC Archive contains digital and physical material documenting the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, including original establishing documents, working files, and more than two hundred narratives of personal, generational, and systemic trauma and genocide of the Wabanaki people and their experiences with Maine’s child welfare system. In partnership with Wabanaki REACH, the librarians and archivists at the Bowdoin College Library department of Special Collections & Archives (SC&A)* care for and make publicly available these powerful stories and documents.

Since 2018, I have worked to introduce the TRC Archive into Bowdoin College** undergraduate classes in collaboration with Bowdoin faculty and staff. Looking specifically at an activity developed for Anthropology Professor Willi Lempert’s course Contemporary Issues of Native North America, we find an example of how active and experiential learning with the TRC archive can directly promote students’ personal, political, and academic growth and development.

The education program of SC&A, grounded in the Bowdoin College Library Research and Instruction Services learning outcomes and informed by the Primary Source Literacy Guidelines, emphasizes active learning for informational, archival, and visual literacy and by facilitating access to original sources. We support a wide variety of teaching and learning experiences; since 2010, we have collaborated on over 350 courses and faculty from across disciplines have found meaningful ways to integrate SC&A’s resources into their classes.

Contemporary Issues of Native North America is an anthropology course that explores contemporary Native American issues within and beyond tribal nations. Within a given semester topics may include sovereignty and decolonization, federal policy, cultural appropriation, gaming and casinos, blood quantum, the repatriation of human remains and objects, language revitalization, comedy, and the little-known history of Native Americans' influence on rock and roll. Throughout, the course emphasizes Indigenous-produced scholarship and media. This class was developed by Bowdoin College Assistant Professor of Anthropology Willi Lempert and was first taught in 2018. Lempert’s desire to bring attention to tribal nations in Maine as well as the significance of recent political mobilizations in relation to the long history of Native activism led to a collaboration with SC&A to engage with the Maine Wabanaki-State Child Welfare Truth and Reconciliation Commission Archive.

“It is really important for us in this course to focus on the tribes and people who are in the area,” Lempert said. “You never want to send the message, which is so deeply ingrained in history, that indigenous people are far away, both in terms of space and time. Indigenous people are here and now, not there and then.” One thing that makes the TRC Archive unique within Bowdoin’s collections is that while it reaches back into history, it also shines a light on a current story, one that is still developing. The TRC Archive is has immediacy, it is telling a contemporary story: we are in the midst of it.

As Special Collections Education and Engagement Librarian, I work directly with faculty and students to facilitate meaningful connections with the collections and materials stewarded by SC&A. In the case of Contemporary Issues of Native North America, Lempert and I identified a few learning goals for a class visit to the archives that drove the development of an in-class activity. The goals posited that students would walk away from their class visit with an understanding of what a Truth and Reconciliation process is; the context for the Maine Wabanaki-State Child Welfare TRC; and how to access the TRC archive and statements on their own. While Lempert assigned the TRC Final Report as advance reading, I wanted to develop a learning experience that would be meaningful whether a student had an established understanding of the Maine Wabanaki community or none at all. Because this interaction was just one class session (85-minutes) of many in the semester for these students, it offered a mediated and supported introduction to the TRC —allowing them to read, listen, and learn in community. This mediated approach allowed us to model close-reading and mindful engagement with complex topics in community to support students in building critical analysis skills, knowledge, and empathy.

In preparation for leading the class visit with the TRC archive, I spent many hours with documents and statements—considering the informational and emotional impact, developing criteria for selecting and organizing materials for class use, identifying relevant context, and selecting assessment to understand whether our goals were achieved. During this exploratory period, I chose to develop the class session using TRC documents and working files and not individual or group statements. This choice was informed by the capacity to support a dozen plus students in their experience of the statements, time constraints, and the desire for students to understand the TRC process before reading and listening to the statements.

Using five documents, including the declaration of intent to create TRC, the archival research process document, the TRC mandate, the research timeline of Tribal-State relationship, and the summary of the research findings—students directly engaged with these documents and generated questions and observations that were contextualized by myself and Prof. Lempert. Students directed the discussion based on their lived experiences and the context of their coursework and reflected on their experience with the documents, including acknowledging the emotional impact of engaging with the history and contemporary status of what the TRC acknowledged to be cultural genocide. By bringing the founding and foundational documents into the classroom through thoughtful and student-centered designed experience, students individually and collectively developed not only a deep awareness of the Maine Wabanaki-State Child Welfare Truth and Reconciliation Commission, but were responsibly prepared to engage the statements in context.


* The Bowdoin College Library’s department of Special Collections & Archives collects, preserves, and makes available unique rare books, manuscripts, historical College records, and digital collections. Students, scholars, and all with an interest are invited to explore and learn from these world-class collections through their own research as well as our varied exhibits, educational sessions, and public programs. Like all archives and special collections libraries, SC&A is the creation of human beings who have collected, organized, and described things in ways that reflect personal, cultural, societal, and institutional biases. Although we strive to preserve and present collections in a manner that is respectful to the individuals and communities who create, use, and are represented in the collections, we acknowledge that our systems are neither neutral nor perfect.  

** Bowdoin College, a liberal arts undergraduate college in Brunswick, enrolls just under 2,000 students who come from 49 states 54 foreign countries, with 9.3% from Maine and 0.338% self-identifying as American Indian. The College, founded in 1794 by an act of the Massachusetts legislation, began its own historical accountability project in 2021 to identify the Black and indigenous stories previously excluded from the well-documented institutional history

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