The Wabanaki, or “People of the Dawn,” are the first people of the area known today as Northeastern New England and Maritime Canada. Historians claim that the Wabanaki have lived on this land for more than 12,000 years; oral history asserts they have been here since the beginning. They defined their richness by the health and balance of their people, their relationship with the land, and their ability to ensure the health and well-being of their people in practical ways.
At the core of Wabanaki culture are strongly held values of generosity and reciprocity; life depended on cooperation, and relationships were created and maintained through routine sharing.
Since first encountering Europeans during the 15th century, Wabanaki communities have experienced significant population depletion. Disease is listed as the primary cause of this decline, but the Wabanaki were also ravaged by forced removal from their lands, decimation of their traditions through Christian conversion, warfare between Europeans, and the bounty placed upon their scalps by the colonists.
There were more than 20 tribes of the Wabanaki Confederacy. There are only four tribes still in existence in Maine; more than 16 other tribes were completely destroyed (Sockbeson, 2011).
Within the remaining four tribes, there are nearly 8,000 tribal members alive today.
Indigenous people were targeted for destruction and have suffered 96% population depletion since first contact. Beginning in the late 1800s and continuing until the 1950s the strategies to eliminate indigenous people included forced assimilation and the taking of Wabanaki children away from their communities to boarding schools in the US and in Canada. They were stripped of their cultural identities, punished for speaking their language and abused physically, emotionally, mentally, and sexually. While many died in these schools, there are thousands of former students, residential school survivors, living with the lasting impact of this history.
Even more Wabanaki people were separated from their families and communities through adoption, foster care and placement in orphanages. A 1977 Senate report revealed that Maine had the 2nd highest rate of Indian foster care placement among states. Even after Congress passed the 1978 Indian Child Welfare Act (ICWA) which gave Native children and families more protection by recognizing the inherent rights of the tribe in child welfare cases, Maine continued to have one of the highest rates of removal of Indian children.
Into the 1990s, Indian children in Maine were being placed with and adopted by non-Native families without notification to the tribe as required by the law.
Chief Brenda Commander, Houlton Band of Maliseet Indians reported that in 1999, “16% of all Maliseet children were in State custody. This disproportionate taking of our children threatened the survival of our Tribe.”