Penthea Burns and Esther Anne, co-founders of Maine-Wabanaki Reconciliation-Engagement-Advocacy-Change-Healing (REACH), came to Occidental April 2–3 to host several events intended to illuminate the stories of Wabanaki people, the indigenous people of Maine, and to include students in conversations about these topics. Maine-Wabanaki REACH promotes and works to achieve decolonization in Maine and seeks to strengthen the cultural, spiritual and physical well-being of Native people in Maine, according to its website.
Anne and Burns addressed students at an art exhibit which was displayed in the library March 30–April 6. Students also attended an interactive decolonization seminar April 3 where Burns and Anne educated participants about the history of the colonization of the Wabanaki people. The events, organized in collaboration with Indigenous Students Association (ISA), the Politics department, the Office of Community Engagement and Oxy Arts, centered around themes of restorative justice and truth telling.
The Wabanaki Confederacy is composed of five nations throughout Maine, Quebec and Newfoundland. Anne, who is Passamaquoddy –– one of the five Wabanaki nations –– and Burns, who is a non-native woman, also created the Maine Wabanaki State Child Welfare Truth and Reconciliation Commission, which reported on their findings of Wabanaki communities’ experiences of child welfare with the intention of bettering the child welfare system. The report investigated whether Wabanaki children were removed from their homes into foster care at a higher rate than non-native children, and discussed the implications of their finding that Wabanaki children in Maine have entered foster care on average at 5.1 times the rate of non-Native children during the past 13 years.
Students gathered in the Academic Commons lobby April 2 to view an art exhibit intended to educate and include viewers in conversations about restorative justice. Four large panels interspersed art with text about the various intentions, histories and uses of restorative justice. Among other descriptions, the exhibit defined restorative justice as an “alternative to criminality,” “justice that promotes healing” and “a process that provides space for stories to be shared and heard.” The exhibit highlighted art painted by a Native prisoner who participates in peace and healing circles hosted by REACH in Maine prisons. According to Anne, these healing circles function as a restorative way of dealing with conflicts.
“In the end, it’s better for everybody if there’s peace, whether it’s in prison or anywhere else,” Anne said. “I think innately humans all want the same thing — we want connection, we want belonging, we want to matter. That’s what I like about restorative practices and restorative justice: it restores communities, it restores people, it restores families.”
Burns agreed, adding that the programs have been influential to all involved.
“I would say one of the things that strikes me about [the circles] is the humanization of people who get othered and set apart from the rest of us,” Burns said. “To hear them talk about the power of the circle and the kinds of things they’re doing and the kinds of results they’re hearing from the participants of the circles and also the wardens, it’s powerful to hear,” Burns said.
Anne and Burns guided an interactive decolonization exercise April 3. During the exercise, participants used a large map to visualize the history of Wabanaki people in Maine, learning about how they were displaced from their land by colonization, disease, famine and violence. The group then took the time to speak about their takeaways.
Jagmit Dhami (sophomore), who attended the exercise as a part of her Restorative Justice class taught by Politics professor Thalia Gonzalez, said part of what she took away from doing the exercise was a recognition that the restorative justice activities from the exercise are the beginning of a long process of learning and change.
“We can’t stop here,” Dhami said. “We can’t just be comfortable with doing this activity, we really need to implement something else in our lives to make sure we’re restoring relationships.”
Gonzalez suggests that students who want to be involved in the process of making change around these issues can come to community circles led by students in her Restorative Justice class.
“If you’re inspired by restorative justice as a broad understanding, if you’re interested in asking about what is it to critique, but then to take the next step to think about being solution-oriented or to create different types of conditions in community and in the way that Occidental is structured, I’d say come to one of those circles,” Gonzalez said. “It takes the entire community to establish the accountability by which change happens.”
The events put on in collaboration with REACH provided a unique opportunity for student learning due to the variety of formats of these events, according to Lily Goldfarb (senior), a campus and community organizer for the Office of Community Engagement who helped plan the event.
“I definitely think in general at Oxy it’s important to try to keep programming diverse and engage different parts of people’s learning,” Goldfarb said.