Denise Yarmal Altvater, 53, used to say she and her five sisters were abused. Over time she grew to understand that the correct term was torture.
Altvater, a member of the Passamaquoddy Tribe, grew up on Pleasant Point Reservation in Washington County. When she was 7, state workers simply showed up when her mother wasn’t home and took her and her five sisters.
The adults gathered the children’s belongings in garbage bags and drove everyone away. They didn’t explain what was happening; Altvater said she doesn’t remember them talking at all.
Many other Indian children in Maine and across the country were purposefully removed from their homes and given to white foster families in order to assimilate them and “save” them from the poverty of reservations.
In some cases, children were removed because their safety really was in danger. Some children were placed in homes with caring new parents.
But many, like Altvater and her sisters, were put into a terrifying situation.
No one can reverse the past, but we can understand what happened. The thing that’s worse than being stolen from your way of life and mother and growing up with abuse is having no one know.
So listen to Altvater’s story. And when a truth and reconciliation commission convenes to hear, over the next few years, people’s experiences with the child welfare system, listen then, too.
In the foster home in Old Town, Altvater remembers always being hungry. If her foster parents caught her or her sisters “stealing” food, they weren’t allowed to eat for 24 hours.
There was a dirt cellar with rats in it and one light bulb at the top of the stairs. If Altvater ate when she wasn’t supposed to, her foster parents unscrewed the light bulb and locked her in the cellar overnight. There was no heat. She tried to sleep on the top step.
If the children wet the bed, the foster parents made them lay in it as a punishment. They had to use the bathroom in front of the men. They were sexually assaulted.
Her younger sister tried to run away but was caught. Her punishment was to kneel on a broomstick between the dining room and kitchen, and every time someone passed by her they had to yank on her hair. She was starved.
Another punishment: Go into the chicken house barefoot and let the chickens peck your feet until they bleed.
“I don’t know how they thought up some of the things they did to us, and I don’t think I remember everything yet,” Altvater said.
After four years, the state must have discovered what was happening because the police came. Altvater said she remembers the scene being chaotic, with her foster mother crying because they were taking away her “babies.”
Altvater and her older sisters were put in a foster home in Hampden and separated from their younger sisters, who were taken to a home in Bradley. Their first night in Hampden, they squeezed into a closet in the bedroom to sleep because they were scared; they didn’t know what kind of home it was.
It turned out the Hampden family was a kind one. Altvater said she learned later the Bradley home was not.
Altvater has never been able to find records explaining why she was taken from Pleasant Point Reservation, and she doesn’t know who notified police about the first foster family. To her knowledge, her foster parents were never charged.
In Hampden, she made friends and became a cheerleader at Hampden Academy. She didn’t know that her biological mother was fighting to get back her children. She was surprised when, at age 15, state workers arrived to bring her and her sisters back to the reservation.
“I was scared and didn’t want to go, but we had to. We didn’t have a choice,” she said. The reservation had changed. There was electricity, new houses and roads, and her mother was living in a new house with running water and a bathroom.
She enrolled at Shead High School in Eastport, but many tribal members didn’t seem interested in her education, she said. She confronted racism. She dropped out.
The tribe hired her to work in its finance office, and she eventually became director of the personnel department. Even though she didn’t graduate from high school, she took college classes on the reservation and, tutored by a nun, finally earned her diploma at age 28.
She was studying at the University of Maine at Machias when she found a dream job with the Quakers. For the last 19 years, she has worked with the American Friends Service Committee, coordinating the Maine Wabanaki Program. She married, had three children.
But the pain of her childhood never went away.
She didn’t talk about her experiences until the late 1990s when she was asked to share her story for a video entitled “Belonging” that was used to train Maine Department of Health and Human Services workers about the federal Indian Child Welfare Act, which set higher standards of protection for Indian children.
After describing what had happened to her, she started experiencing anguish in a way she hadn’t before. As she awakened to the reality of her past, she said she realized she had spent her life feeling dead inside.
She is still “trying to reclaim my place, a place where I won’t be judged or harmed or dehumanized, a place where I’m equal,” she said. “What kind of person would I be like if they didn’t do this to me?”
Altvater said her children and grandchildren have suffered because of what happened to her. “I wasn’t able to be a loving parent,” she said. “That’s how my children grew up, and that’s been passed down to my grandchildren who now suffer effects of the trauma I endured.”
Even though it’s difficult, she has continued to try to improve the child welfare system for the tribes. She is a member of a convening group that has helped form the Maine Wabanaki-State Child Welfare Truth and Reconciliation Commission.
The commission, which has been supported by all of Maine’s tribes and state government, will listen to people’s experiences with the child welfare system in order to write down what happened and recommend changes.
Altvater lives near her 76-year-old mother, and they see each other often. But they’ve never talked about why Altvater and her sisters were taken away or what her mother had to do to get them back.
She hasn’t pressed her because “I want my mother, her last years, to be peaceful and happy,” she said. Maybe through the truth and reconciliation process her mother will choose to speak.
Altvater said she knows the process of telling will be difficult for many people. She knows this because it was for her — both in the past and for this interview. But she also knows that the pain of opening up is an important step — not just to educate people who don’t know what happened — but to heal, as much as that can be possible.