It’s an appalling irony that among the myriad travesties committed against First Nations people, some of the most egregious and systematic were enacted against children by state child welfare agencies. Across the U.S. — including here in Maine — standardized government policy removed Native children from their families and placed them in white foster homes, adopted families, or residential schools where they were forbidden to speak their languages or practice their culture. The idea behind these interventions was “kill the Indian to save the child,” as one Native woman puts it in Dawnland, a powerful documentary film by Adam Mazo and Ben Pender-Cudlip.
Dawnland, which screens at the PMA this weekend, follows the work of Maine Wabanaki-State Child Welfare Truth and Reconciliation Commission — the first government-sanctioned one of its kind — as it gathers the stories of Wabanaki survivors.
In 2012, Maine’s governor and five Wabanaki chiefs signed a mandate that formed the TRC, and charged it with investigating the fates of Maine’s Native children between 1978-2012. Dawnland embeds with the five-member Commission, composed of three non-Native and two Native people, and follows along as the commissioners, their staff, and members of Maine-Wabanaki REACH (a group for healing and decolonization, and the original convening group for the TRC) travel the state to hear and record the suffering of now-grown Wabanaki children. As it chronicles the TRC’s work, the film documents survivors’ moments of trauma as well as communion and healing, and it highlights tensions that illustrate how, in confronting the history and legacy of white harm, even the most woke white people should expect to sometimes make space.
The Commission’s work attempts to reconcile a history of wrong, which Dawnland sketches out with haunting archival footage. In clips from a 1974 Congressional hearing, we watch a young child crying as she describes, into the microphone, her brother being slapped by a foster parent; we watch a young woman describe how child welfare workers came around talking about removing her baby before it was even born. In older black-and-white footage from the 1930s, an assembly of identically dressed Native children, hair cut in identical page-boys, unsmilingly sing “One little two little three little Indians.” And a white man, surrounded by a tableau of Native young people in Arizona in 1933, tells of Indians “being brought from their state of comparative barbarism to a state of civilization.” Even if you already know that these things happened, the images and voices are still shocking, still make the skin crawl.
Dawnland’s horrific glimpses into this history powerfully contextualize the trauma and, sometimes, the resistance that the commissioners encounter as they make their way around the state. In their vérité footage of the story-gathering, Mazo and Pender-Cudlip take pains to get us up close into the process and the various frames of the telling. We closely watch survivors’ faces as TRC staff explain permissions and process, and then we watch them tell their stories, in part, through the frame of an iPad used as camera and monitor. These framings amplify our understanding of the challenges involved in not simply sharing these stories, but doing so for the historical record. And Mazo and Pender-Cudlip also get out of those frames to get up close and intimate, as we watch hands wring and shake while tellers breathe through moments of silence.
In fact, how Dawnland holds silences, sometimes uncomfortably so, is among its most striking strengths. We linger on the face of a survivor struggling to get the words out; we hold steady on the face of a white commissioner in a gym self-consciously meeting the gazes of skeptical Wabanaki. Scenes are sometimes of empty rooms and non-events, as at a stop when no one shows up to tell their story to the commission — which is, after all, 60 percent white.
And the film’s most acute object lesson in non-Native ally-building comes during a disagreement over who will be present during Native story-sharing, after some survivors ask for a Native-only audience. We can see the cognitive dissonance in the faces of the white commissioners as they are told that these testimonies are “not about making white people feel comfortable,” and that “for all intents and purposes, you represent the perpetrator.”
But Dawnland ultimately lands on the hope for the acknowledgement, healing, and community that can be engendered by the truth and reconciliation process. While only a beginning, the film suggests, this work has the potential to both let Native truths be heard and start the shift of the white relationship with Native people — “from being an occupier,” as one Mashpee Wampanoag commissioner puts it, “to being a neighbor.”
Dawnland, directed by Adam Mazo and Ben Pender-Cudlip | Portland Museum of Art, 7 Congress Sq, Portland | October 5-8 | Fri 2 & 6 pm; Sat 2 pm; Sun 11:30 am & 2 pm; Mon 2 pm | www.portlandmuseum.org/movies