Jamie Bissonette of Pembroke was appointed as the new chair of the Maine Indian Tribal State Commission (MITSC) at the commission's meeting on July 1. Bissonette, a Missisquoi Abenaki, coordinates the Healing Justice Program for the American Friends Service Committee in New England and staffs both the Sipayik Criminal Justice Commission for the Passamaquoddy Tribe and the Wabanaki Tribal Advisory Group to the Maine Department of Corrections.
Her appointment was approved unanimously by the commission members. She will replace Paul Bisulca, who last winter resigned as chair, citing lack of progress in improving tribal-state relations. Bisulca, who was the first Native chair of MITSC, had noted the need for a process for the executive and legislative branches of state government to heed concerns expressed by the tribes that the state has not honored agreements to affirm the sovereignty of the Wabanaki nations.
Bissonette says she is hopeful about improving tribal-state relations. "I think we have good representatives on the commission, and they seem to be committed to making the work of the Tribal-State Work Group a reality." In 2008, the Tribal-State Work Group had recommended to the legislature eight changes to the Maine Implementing Act, the companion legislation to the 1980 Maine Indian Claims Settlement Act, but most of the proposed changes were removed in the bill that was enacted by the legislature, leaving tribal officials disappointed. Bissonette is "cautiously optimistic" that a bill with some of those changes will be passed during the upcoming legislative session. Among the changes that were proposed are measures to reaffirm tribal sovereignty; to exempt the tribal governments from the state's Freedom of Access laws; and to require consulting with the tribes before introducing bills that affect them.
Taking Native children from homes to be investigated
Also at the July 1 meeting, the commission voted unanimously to support the work of the Maine/Indian Child Welfare Coalition in developing a truth commission to investigate and hold hearings on the past systematic practice of taking Native children from their homes and their communities and placing them across the state in non‑Native foster homes and reform schools, where some of them were severely physically and sexually abused. Esther Attean of the Muskie School of Public Service at the University of Southern Maine gave a presentation to the commission members about the practice.
Beginning in the late 1800s, the U.S. government established boarding schools as a means to solve the "Indian problem" through assimilation. In the 1950s and 1960s the Indian Adoption Project removed hundreds of Native children from their families and tribes to be adopted by non-Native families.
In 1978, when Congress passed the Indian Child Welfare Act, which was an act to end this practice, Maine had one of the worst records in the nation for engaging in this activity. Maine's Native children were removed at a rate 19 times greater than non‑Native children, as a means of assimilating Native people into the non-Native society.
The coalition consists of child welfare workers for the Penobscot, Passamaquoddy, MicMac and Maliseet tribes, Denise Altvater of the American Friends Service Committee, Sharon Tomah, director of the Wabanaki mental health program, staff from the Muskie School of Public Service, the director of Maine's Child and Family Services as well as three other state employees.
Altvater, who lives at Sipayik, notes, "We have been working on this project for about a year and a half, and last month the International Center for Transitional Justice out of New York invited me to speak on a panel in Winnipeg at the Canadian Truth and Reconciliation National Event about the work we are doing."
The timeline to complete the process is approximately three years. Funding for the project is from the Andres Family Fund based in New York City.