Is It Time for Truth and Reconciliation in the U.S.?

Canada and South Africa both used similar commissions to grapple with their histories of racism and genocide. The U.S. could benefit from following suit.
1.Truth-Reconciliation-Tangled

For a truth and reconciliation commission to be successful anywhere, the victims and the government must communicate to find the best way to go about healing, whether it be through reconciliation or reparations.

Illustration by Gary Waters/Getty Images

For more than 100 years leading up to the late 1970s, Native children in the Wabanaki group of tribes of Maine were removed from their homes by state authorities and placed with White families in an attempt to erase their indigenous identity. To try to heal from this trauma, state and tribal child welfare workers collaborated to create the Maine Wabanaki-State Child Welfare Truth and Reconciliation Commission.

“We were led by a real desire to make a difference in the child welfare system and native families, because playing nice wasn’t doing it,” said Esther Anne, a board member of the nonprofit Maine Wabanaki REACH.

REACH, which stands for Restoration Engagement Advocacy Change Healing, is a cross-cultural collaborative organization with both Wabanaki people and non-Natives focused on restorative justice, education, and healing and wellness work, said Barbara Kates, a community organizer for the group.

This system has been effective in other places. Canada completed a truth and reconciliation commission in 2015 to address the suffering of First Nations children in the residential school system.

The report the Canadian commission produced detailed the abuse and subsequent trauma the children and families suffered. But every year since then, organizers in the village of Fort Langley, British Columbia, host a Walk in the Spirit of Reconciliation to honor the report’s release and to show solidarity with survivors.

The Maine Wabanaki-State Child Welfare Truth and Reconciliation Commissioners in 2016. Left to right, Sandy White Hawk, Gail Werrbach, gkisedtanamoogk, Matthew Dunlap, and Carol Wishcamper. Photo from TRC.

Maine Wabanaki REACH conducted a 27-month investigation, which ended in 2015, into the family separations. Today, the group is continuing to stay focused on the self-determination of the Wabanaki people, said Anne, who is a member of the Passamaquoddy Tribe, one of the five in Maine and Quebec that make up the Wabanaki Confederacy. The commission’s work was the subject of the 2018 documentary, Dawnland.

Kates also played a part in the commission, of which Anne was a co-founder. Kates worked in the Maine child welfare system and reached out to colleagues there to ask if they would be interested in coming forward and telling about their experience working with Native children who had been taken from their families. The truth and reconciliation commission was a grassroots effort, she said.

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“This came from the bottom up,” Kates said.

This echoes a statement from Joshua Inwood, a geography professor at Pennsylvania State University, who said that truth and reconciliation commissions in the U.S. have typically taken a bottom-up approach.

“Commissions that are successful in the United States are really grassroots driven,” he said.

Inwood said how such commissions are run varies from case to case. For example, in an effort to heal from the 1979 attack on a unionization protest by members of the KKK in Greensboro, North Carolina, in which five demonstrators were killed, there was a public call for commissioners who researched archives, held a series of events to collect public testimony, and wrote a report that was then unveiled in a public ceremony. He also said several public meetings were held after the commission ran its course to keep that conversation going.

Tissues used by people who gave statements to the commission being burned in a sacred fire. Photo from TRC.

This is similar to the approach taken by the Maine-Wabanaki commission, which was modeled on the Greensboro commission, Anne said.

Along with revealing the truth about family separations and promoting healing between Native and non-Native people, one of the goals for the commission was fostering change. The commission outlined 14 recommendations near the end of the report, released in 2015, that reflect the change it hoped to see, including some that touch on tribal sovereignty. Among the proposed changes for this are committing to state and tribal jurisdictions, supporting the healing and cultural resurgence of the Wabanaki people, and building cultural awareness.

The commission also made recommendations pertaining to the U.S. Indian Child Welfare Act of 1978, which was created to protect Indian children and promote the stability and security of Indian tribes and families. The commission recommended funding the renewal of an ICWA work group and the regular monitoring of compliance with ICWA.

There were also care-focused recommendations. One called for better and more consistent support for non-Native foster and adoptive families, while another recommended exploring the creation of more Native foster homes.

A still from Dawnland, a documentary that focuses on the work of the TRC. Georgina Sappier-Richardson, who was placed in foster care as a child, sharing her story at a TRC community visit. Photo by Ben Pender-Cudlip/Upstander Project.

Different people had different experiences with the commission, but powerful change has been occurring in Indigenous and non-Native communities in Maine, Kates said. She explained that, because of the complicated nature of the issue, drawing absolute conclusions about what happened during the period of child separation is difficult, and as a non-Native, she said, she can’t make assumptions. But she has heard from others that people are connecting over their newfound understanding of the intergenerational trauma that occurred to the families and children. This included abuse and neglect, and suppressing the use of their Native language, according to the commissions’ report.

Anne said one of the biggest changes she saw in tribal communities was that, after a long time of asking, “What is wrong with us?” they were talking about their trauma and trying to heal and understand, asking, “What happened to us?”

However, not all truth commissions include a reconciliation portion. Bonny Ibhawoh, a professor of history and global human rights at McMaster University in Hamilton, Ontario, said South Africa’s commission after the apartheid ended was the first example of an emphasis on reconciliation.

For Ibhawoh, the attraction of a truth and reconciliation commission is the opportunity it provides to address human rights violations on a mass scale. It allows victims to speak their truths, something you cannot always get from a trial, he said.

Nelson Mandela, left, receives a five volumes of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission final report from Archbishop Desmond Tutu, in Pretoria on October 29, 1998. The report reveals human rights abuse by various political parties during the Nationalist Party rule. Photo by Walter Dhaladhla/AFP/Getty Images.

A general debate runs within transitional justice circles as to whether or not there should be a reconciliation portion to truth commissions established by the state, Ibhawoh said. Some people argue that the state has no business trying to impose reconciliation, and that some people are just not ready to reconcile with or even confront their abusers, which risks further victimization, he said. The Truth Commission of Ecuador established by the government to investigate human rights violations committed by the government over many years serves as an example of a truth commission influenced by this view, Ibhawoh said. In other cases, as in South Africa, leaders like Nelson Mandela thought the country could be healed through a reconciliation process.

In the context of the commission in Maine, Anne said she thinks the word “reconciliation” can be problematic in how people understand it and what their perspective is. During the commission’s work, White people wanted to get right to the healing, but the tribes needed to tell their truth, she said.

Ibahawoh said he thinks the U.S. should seriously consider a truth and reconciliation commission as a model to try to heal from injustices like slavery and persistent racism.

The final meeting between staff and advisors from REACH and the TRC. Photo from TRC.

However, for a truth and reconciliation commission to be successful anywhere, he said, the victims and the government must communicate to find the best way to go about healing, whether it be through reconciliation or reparations.

“The government wants to put (out) a reconciliation narrative at the expense of victims,” Ibhawoh said.

Anne said commissions are just one way of approaching truth. Depending on the goals, restorative practices and informed knowledge in communities can happen anywhere.

There is value in different ways of truth-telling and healing that do not need to be formal or institutionalized, she said. It would take a lot of time and resources, but if people were invested, she said, she thinks a commission could work nationwide.

“The truth-telling that happened since the commission has been impactful,” Anne said.

Editor’s note: An earlier version referred to Esther Anne with the surname Attean.