The Coastal Packet: The stolen children of Maine

Thursday, July 23

The stolen children of Maine

In These Times - From the late 1800s through the mid-1900s, indigenous children across the country were placed in boarding schools meant to assimilate them into white culture, a practice that proliferated throughout the country. Abuse was common practice in these institutions. Richard Henry Pratt, who in 1879 founded one of the first such schools in Carlisle, Pennsylvania, phrased his goals quite bluntly: “Kill the Indian in him, and save the man.”

Denise Altvater was born in 1959, a Passamoquoddy child in Maine. She and her sisters were taken from her home by child welfare services when she was seven years old and forced into foster care, where she recalls being raped, starved and forced to sleep among rats. She eventually ended up in a kinder foster home, but even there she was discouraged from speaking of her heritage. Altvater now works in the field of indigenous child welfare, but reentering the tribe has been a long and often excruciating process. She has been suicidal at times, and struggled with her own personal relationships. “I wasn’t the best parent,” she told me. “I didn’t know how to be a parent.”

Genocide, as defined in the United Nations’ 1948 Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide, includes “forcibly transferring children of the group to another group” when done “with intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious group.” This (and other definitions) undeniably applies to our nation’s history with indigenous peoples. Less acknowledged is that, according to a June report out of Maine, the cultural genocide continues today.

That report, titled “Beyond the Mandate: Continuing the Conversation,” zeroes in on what might be evil at its most banal: the intricacies of child-welfare laws. “Beyond the Mandate” shows that Native children are disproportionally put into foster care or put up for adoption, often taken in by non-Native foster families unwilling or unable to preserve the child’s language and heritage.

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