“How could they do that to them?” My students were leaping out of their seats. “Let’s protest this!”
How could it be, these seventh-graders wondered, that in the very state where they have lived their entire lives surrounded by friends and family, many children were taken from their homes and forced to grow up among strangers?
I had shown a video clip about the recently convened Maine Truth and Reconciliation Commission, the first between a state government and a tribal nation. According to the TRC, its purpose is to bring to light “what happened to Wabanaki people involved with the Maine child welfare system.” The story could be ancient history, but it’s not. Into the 1990s, the Wabanaki children were removed from their homes at disproportionately higher rates than American Indian children in other states and placed in foster care with nonnative—and, in some cases, abusive—families. This practice continued a legacy of U.S. government-sanctioned breakups of Native American families that included forced-assimilation boarding schools in the 19th and 20th centuries.
In my classroom, I try to be aware of how the "us" and "them" themes are expressed. It shifts. I notice that my mostly white, mostly privileged students, when talking about the colonists in the original 13 Colonies, say, "We did this" or "We did that."
“We declared independence.”
“We won and England lost.”
They identify with the colonists, the writers of the history. Indeed, some of my students point out ancestors’ signatures on the copy of the U.S. Constitution that hangs on our classroom wall.
But when I showed them the TRC video, they screamed, "How could they do that to them!"
Of course, none of my students actually was a perpetrator or a victim in this case. Of course, none of them was a colonist, either. Many students, in fact, have parents or family members who are or have been high up in Maine’s government. Our town is one of the wealthiest in Maine. My students are young people, about the same age that many Wabanaki people were when taken from their families.
I want to challenge who is “us” and who is “them.”
Soon, I will launch a unit on our town's connection to slavery in the United States. The first assignment asks students to interview an adult they know about local history. They can ask whatever questions they want, but they must include the question, “What is our town’s connection to slavery?” In past years, students have returned with a variety of answers:
Or, “The Underground Railroad came through here.”
And sometimes, “There were no slaves here.”
The only person who connected the big, beautiful, former sea captains’ homes so sumptuously restored on Main Street to the Atlantic Triangular Trade was a student who interviewed a local high school teacher who has made history his lifework.
Next, students will visit our historical society and re-enact a debate that actually took place here in the years leading up to the Civil War. Taking on the roles of townspeople, they will debate the question: Shall we abolish slavery or not?
There are enough talking points for both sides: “Our morals tell us it is wrong.” “Our businesses rely on slavery.”
We’ll define us and them.
And we’ll keep asking questions and scrutinizing the stories we hear. We’ll consider the many and varied perspectives. One truth is coming from the Maine Truth and Reconciliation Commission. Let’s reconcile that these are our truths. All of ours.
Blaine is a public school teacher and dialogue facilitator exploring non-violent communication, privilege and power in Maine.