Originally published in The Weekly Packet, January 23, 2014
Shetterly unveils new portraits in state capitol
Passamaquoddy women of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission
“The truth is our resilience, strength, humor and intelligence have saved us from extinction,” reads part of the quote from a Rob Shetterly portrait of Esther Attean.
by Anne Berleant
On December 4, Robert Shetterly unveiled two portraits in his Americans Who Tell the Truth series in the Hall of Flags in the Maine State House and opened the door a bit wider into a slice of Maine history.
Denise Altvater and Esther Attean were taken from their Passamaquoddy tribal families as children by the Department of Human Services and placed with white families.
“I was overwhelmed by hearing them both talk in terms of both history and personal experience,” Shetterly said in a recent phone call. “The more I’ve gotten into it, the more compelling and disturbing it all is.”
As adults, both women played crucial roles in forming the Maine Wabanaki-State Child Welfare Truth and Reconciliation Commission, which looks at what happened to native children in foster care and its impact on their lives.
“It becomes a way of also telling what most people, especially young people, don’t know of the history of this country to indigenous people,” said Shetterly.
Shetterly was first contacted by Arla Patch, program director for Maine-Wabanaki REACH, a collaborative working with the Truth and Reconciliation Commission.
“She called me out of the blue,” he said. “I had been only tangentially aware of the project.”
After several hours with Patch, Shetterly became “totally convinced that this was something I wanted to do.”
Shetterly spent time with both Altvater and Attean before painting their portraits.
“I listened to their stories, [got] to know them,” he said. “For me to spend this kind of time listening to them talk, hearing the extraordinary pain that they’ve gone through…not just being kidnapped by the DHS but the identity questions. And then being embraced by them at the end of this. It was overwhelming for me.”
Altvater shared her experience of the unveiling ceremony. “I felt at ease with him and safe sharing who I really am. When the portraits were unveiled and he spoke such kind words about me, I knew this was so special and I was loved for who I am and not what I do.”
But there was a question whether the women would agree to the portraits.
“Among the tribe, it’s kind of looked down upon to let any person be singled out to be more important…It was finally decided it would be good for the cause,” Shetterly said.
“The process of having my portrait done was more difficult than I had anticipated,” Attean wrote in an email. “At the outset, I was uncomfortable with individual recognition because I know that I do not do anything for myself or by myself. All I know and all I do is owed to all the people who have taught me, listened to me and shared with me.”
The Indian Child Welfare Act was passed in 1978 to prohibit native American children being removed from their families and culture.
Surveys completed by the Association of American Indian Affairs in 1969 and 1974 indicated that 25 to 35 percent of all native children were separated from their homes and living either in foster care, adoptive care, or institutions at the time, according to the Indian Law Alliance.
“[This] went on in Maine well after the Indian Children Welfare Act,” Shetterly said. “That’s why it’s important for Maine to face this.”
Shetterly spoke at the unveiling ceremony. “I addressed each one of them and talked about what it felt like for me to get to know them and paint the portrait.
“What I really wanted to do is paint the burden they carry…It’s not pretty. It’s awful. [They] understood that.”
At the unveiling, Altvater said she “knew this was so special and I was loved for who I am and not what I do.”
Also attending the unveiling ceremony was a DHS worker who had removed Native American children from their homes and stood up and asked for forgiveness. Altvater embraced the woman after the ceremony.
“Denise [Altvater] gave her something that words could not and that could only come from Denise, for Denise, now in her early 50s, had been forcibly removed from her home at the age of 7 along with five of her sisters. What she offered could only come from the heart and soul of the victim. I have to assume that the woman felt forgiven,” Shetterly wrote in a prepared press release.
Attean and Altvater may come to Blue Hill this spring; Shetterly and Patch are working with the Rev. Rob McCall to bring the TRC to the Congregational Church.
“I think that the legacy and shame of this country’s white people history with the native people is so under talked about,” Shetterly said, adding that the TRC is the “only state-tribal partnership in the United States.”
Shetterly began creating his Americans Who Tell The Truth project over 10 years ago. He has painted nearly 200 portraits, which can be viewed at americanswhotellthetruth.org.