How a community heals: A conversation with Denise Altvater

Denise Altvater is a member of the Passamaquoddy Tribe and has worked for AFSC for eighteen years.  She has been instrumental in developing the first Truth and Reconciliation Commission between a sovereign Tribal Nation, the Wabanaki, and a U.S. state, Maine, to address hurts caused by the foster care system. The commission will be seated on February 12, 2013.

The Wabanaki-Maine Truth and Reconciliation Commission is also the first such commission in which perpetrators and victims have proceeded in unity about what needed to happen, rather than as adversaries. Denise says, “Nothing is impossible. When you work with people and have belief in people and you set aside your biases and prejudices, your fears and assumptions, incredible things are possible.”Here Denise tells the story of how the Truth and Reconciliation Commission came to be.

To learn more, watch this BBC news story about Denise and the Truth and Reconciliation Commission.

In Peace, Lucy

Lucy Duncan (LD): What are the historical circumstances that created the need for a truth and reconciliation process in Maine?


Denise Altvater (DA): Here in Maine there were once 20 Wabanaki tribes; now there are only four. There used to be 50,000-100,000 Wabanaki in Maine. The overall depletion was 96%, mostly due to disease and genocide. Today there are only 8,000 Wabanaki people left. 

The federal Indian Child Welfare Act was passed in 1978 because of the high rates of removal of native children. The act codified higher standards for the removal of children and for the return of children. It also set standards where the tribe of each child was considered a third parent and had a right to be notified and act on behalf of any removed children.

Listen to a recording (below) of Denise recounting the history of U.S. policies that forcibly removed native people from their land, tribes, and families. 

Denise Atlvater 

Listen to ( or download ) Denise tell the history of 
U.S. policies that forcibly removed native people 
from their land (3 minutes, 59 seconds). 
( Right click download link and select 'Save As' )

In the 1990s, Maine received federal funding for a program to implement this act, but it was in jeopardy because of poor performance—the state removed Wabanaki children 18 times more frequently than other children. The state reached out to the tribe and asked for help on how to improve their practice on the Indian Welfare Act.

LD: Tell me how the stage was set for the truth and reconciliation process.

DA: I became involved when I was invited to participate in a video to train Department of Human Services (DHS) workers. DHS didn’t want the state workers just to follow the letter of the law, but to understand the spirit of it and why it was important. 

They decided to do a video about those of us who were taken from our homes—how it impacted our lives, how it impacted how we parented our children, how it impacted our children’s lives, and how they parented their children.

We made the video; it was called ‘Belonging.” Across the board, however you were taken, in a real good way or a real bad way, whether you were taken from a good home or a bad home, whether you were placed in a good or bad foster home, the people taken didn’t feel like they knew where the belonged.  

The trauma that had the deepest impact was the trauma of being taken. It was a real strong and real life-long traumatic event.

So, we did the video and developed the training. Within one month we trained 500 DHS workers across the state. Then we developed a summit that we did every year that was offered for lawyers, judges, and DHS workers. The state mandated that every child welfare worker was required to take our training within one year after being employed.

We did all this work, but were untrusting of one another. Wabanaki people thought, “You want to help us now, when all these years you’ve ignored us?” The state was hesitant about working with the tribes.

We decided we needed to connect with one another on a more personal level. If the group was going to work and do good work, we needed to change the way we looked at each other and treated each other.

We divided into groups of three and each person had 10 minutes to tell the story about who they were as an individual. When we got done with that process, everything changed—people looked at each other as human beings, as real people with real problems, with real life stories. We had greater trust for one another; we were able to communicate on a more equal level. We developed close friendships. The work really changed; the state and the tribes really trusted each other.

Our whole intent was focused on the best interest of our children, but what we were doing wasn’t enough. We needed to go to a deeper level. The director of Family and Child Services heard about the truth and reconciliation process and suggested we do something like that: What if we heard people’s stories, made it safe to share, and came up with a truth commission that would propose recommendations?

The tribes spent six months developing a declaration of intent by themselves, and put everything into it; all the hurts we had went into the declaration. When the state workers read it, they said, “We can’t do that.” If we hadn’t developed trust, they might have appeased us and pretended they agreed, but they had no problem saying “no.” We started over as a group and came up with a declaration together.


We decided that the process needed not to just be between our groups, the Department of Human Services and the Indian Child Welfare Act, but between the state of Maine and the Wabanaki Tribal nation. We all thought this would never happen, but believed it was the right way to go forward.

When Governor LePage was elected we never thought it would happen, as he is a Tea Party governor. But he was supportive. When he was a young child, his father was abusive and he ran away from home and lived with the Maliseet in Canada. 

He said, “When I was a little boy, I had to leave my home, but I got to stay in a community with people who looked like me, talked like me. I can’t imagine what it would be like to live in a place that wasn’t community.” He really gets it.

We all held our breath until he signed the declaration. It’s been a miracle.

LD: What do you hope will be the result of the process?

DA:The first and essential aspect is the healing of the Wabanaki people. We are providing a place where the people’s voices will be heard in a meaningful way and treated as the truth. People will be believed. 

We also expect there will be a change in the system of child welfare, institutional and systemic changes, so that best practices for working with Native children will be adopted.

I also want the Wabanaki youth to understand their history and what happened; they need to know why conditions are the way they are, why there is such a high suicide rate, why there is such a high incarceration rate. They need to know where they come from and heal so the generational and historical trauma can end.

LD: Tell me about the storytelling process and how people heal.

DA: We operate from an assumption of wholeness. In the telling of the stories, in our healing circles, we use the Anders family model, which talks about how you go through certain stages of change and that we all need to accept people where they are in order to move from change to renewal. People will move forward, then backward on their way to healing. We teach people to accept people where they are and not expect everyone to be at the same stage.

People can be transformed by being open and human. We believe that people have a need to be heard, but how they are heard really matters – if they take the risk of telling their story, it needs to make a difference.

It’s critical that all understand that we were part of a system. During the boarding school era, the foster care era, child welfare workers were doing their jobs and they thought they were doing the right thing. It’s not an issue of them being good or bad, right or wrong.

My grandfather was in a boarding school, and my mother was abused, too. What we did as parents and what our grandparents did… we didn’t set out to beat our children or disconnect from them. People don’t set out to do that, to not be loving parents, they aren’t bad people or bad parents. They did the best they could with what they were taught.

The hurts are so deep. Once everyone can tell their story, the healing will come for them; the community will heal, too. We need to understand how what happened impacts how we treat each other, and how we need to heal in order for things to change. There is power in having a voice.