In 2013, the Maine Wabanaki-State Child Welfare Truth and Reconciliation Commission began its work of investigating the experiences of Native people in the Maine child welfare system.[1] Wabanaki REACH organized and supported the Commission, hoping the process would lead to meaningful and lasting changes in child welfare and healing for Wabanaki people.[2]

The Commission gathered statements and conducted documentary research to understand what had happened. They interpreted the evidence that they had gathered “within a web of interconnected causes, including the presence of institutional racism in state systems and the public; the effects of historical trauma; and a long history of contested sovereignties and jurisdictions between the state and the tribes.”[3] The Commission released their report Beyond the Mandate: Continuing the Conversation that provided fourteen recommendations giving Mainers a roadmap for the journey of truth, healing, and change.[4]

REACH embraced the journey of truth, healing, and change. As the truth telling began, it became clear that we needed to examine the larger societal context within which the child welfare system is authorized. We examined the long history that brought us to this time, how settlers and their descendants used calculated strategies to exert control over indigenous people, land, and resources. We learned that healing begins and can only continue with truth.

REACH defines colonization as an historical concept related to European arrival and governmental relations.[5] And it is a current and active internalized system that defines all things (i.e., children, citizenship, rights, land, water, etc.) as resources that exist for the benefit of some through the oppression and harm of others, particularly Indigenous people. It supports powerful individuals and organizations to take as much as they want without concern for how they are impacting others now and in the future.

REACH focuses on decolonization and supports the self-determination of Wabanaki people through education, truth-telling, restorative justice, and restorative practices in Wabanaki and Maine communities.[6] In Wabanaki communities, REACH supports gatherings where people learn about history and share their knowledge, skills, and experience. In Maine State prisons, we offer healing circles for Wabanaki prisoners. In Maine communities, REACH offers workshops and presentations to help Mainers understand the relationship of Maine and tribal peoples and consider how to move toward a new relationship.

Decolonization requires disrupting the lessons we internalized over the years through patriarchy, racism, privilege, colonization, micro-aggressions, etc. It is personal and grounded in community. It asks us to look at our lives differently, unlearn, and learn again as we peel back the layers of systemic oppression. Through decolonization’s disruption we recognize that our interconnectedness across time will create change and help us all thrive.

We all bear a collective responsibility, and all have contributions to make the Commission’s recommendations come to life. When we explore the Commission’s first recommendation to "respect tribal sovereignty,"[7] we cannot ignore the stolen land and children, contaminated waters, oppression, and domination that non-Natives have benefitted from. Decolonization asks us to acknowledge the harm that has been done, receiving the truth of what happened with compassion, abandoning any skepticism, and recognizing that a different worldview is handing me the truth. It asks us to hold ourselves and one another in loving accountability to stop doing harm.

Decolonization embraces a commitment to creating a just future, with a peaceful and healthy world. We are bound together, approaching our relationships with humility, kindness, generosity, and reciprocity not only for today, but holding the long view of the future. As we work in Maine communities, we are mindful that Wabanaki people are at the center of this work. To be successful in identifying new ways of being and strategies for repairing harms done, non-Native people need to de-center themselves.

We need to change our personal relationships and the systems that support continued colonization. We need to step out of our cultural safety that sorts the world in binaries: good–bad, colonizer–colonized, violence–peace, ill–healthy, sad–happy. We need to learn a way of thinking that incorporates all the shades of pain, beauty, and truth that make up history. Recognizing all these experiences and interconnections will guide our practice of decolonization.

As we grow together we must change our community institutions—faith, business, health, education, government, social, and more. Whatever their role and purpose, these organizations must participate in decolonization and end the oppression of Indigenous people.

The work of healing, in relation to each other and to the land, is neither easy, nor fast. It is painful and necessary to recognize these impacts, but we do so in order to take responsibility for our own ongoing complicity in colonialism. We humble ourselves and intentionally make ourselves vulnerable when we undertake this work.


* Esther Anne is Passamaquoddy from Sipayik and a Policy Associate at the University of Southern Maine Cutler Institute where, she works on projects that engage and benefit tribal communities (Indian Child Welfare Act workgroup, Capacity Building Center for Tribes). Esther is a founding board member of Wabanaki REACH and had a primary role in the creation of the Maine Wabanaki-State Child Welfare Truth and Reconciliation Commission.

Penthea Burns is a Senior Policy Associate at the University of Southern Maine Cutler Institute and serves on the board of Wabanaki REACH.  Penthea is a co-founder of Wabanaki REACH, the Maine Wabanaki-State Child Welfare Truth and Reconciliation Commission, the Youth Leadership Advisory Team, and Camp to Belong Maine.

Interested readers can find out more about the Wabanaki people and child welfare workers in Maine by watching the brief documentary First Light at Early registrants to the Columbia Journal of Race and Law’s 11th Annual Symposium will also gain access to a March 16, 2021 screening of the Emmy-nominated documentary film, Dawnland. You can register for the event at

[1] See Maine Wabanaki-State Child Welfare Truth and Reconciliation Commission, Wabanaki REACH, (last visited Feb. 19, 2021).

[2] See Wabanaki REACH, (last visited Feb. 19, 2021).

[3] Maine Wabanaki-State Child Welfare Truth & Reconciliation Commission, Beyond the Mandate: Continuing the Conversation at 64 (2015),

[4] Id. at 66–67.

[5] See Decolonization – A Shift in Focus for Mainers, REACH Newsl. (Wabanaki REACH, Me.), Summer 2017, at 1,

[6] See Reach International, (last visited March 3, 2021); Wabanaki REACH, (last visited Feb. 19, 2021).

[7] Maine Wabanaki-State Child Welfare Truth & Reconciliation Commission, supra note 3, at 66.