Dawnland documentarian Adam Mazo discusses the history of Maine Wabanaki children taken from their parents.
Ben Pender-Cudlip, Courtesy of Upstander Project
In Maine, for much of the 20th century, child-welfare workers routinely removed Wabanaki children from their homes and placed them in foster care with white families. From 2000 to 2013, Wabanaki kids were still five times more likely than non-Native kids to wind up in the system. Generations of communities were gutted. In Dawnland, airing this month on PBS, directors Adam Mazo and Ben Pender-Cudlip track the Maine Wabanaki-State Child Welfare Truth and Reconciliation Commission — the first state-sanctioned TRC in the U.S. — to explore the private and public fallout of what the commission deemed cultural genocide.
Children separated from parents is a big issue nowadays.
We obviously couldn’t anticipate that when we began, but there’s definitely a connection to what’s happening at the border. People say, “This isn’t who we are! This isn’t America!” But this is who we are — this country has a history of separating families.
So there’s no shortage of stories?
You’d have a hard time finding a Wabanaki person who doesn’t have a story related to child-welfare services, about themselves or a brother, sister, aunt, uncle. That’s true for lots of Native folks across the country. My colleague Tracy Rector has gone to more screenings outside Maine, and she’s heard that this is the same story all over. Maine was just the first state to document it with a TRC.
You included footage of South Africa’s post-apartheid TRC, and it’s striking how different that process was.
The automatic mental image of a TRC is a grand hall full of people, Desmond Tutu up on a podium, almost theatrical. The commissioners here talked about those kinds of things but ultimately kept proceedings pretty private. So hopefully the film raises the profile of these stories. We want people to watch with their families on Thanksgiving and have a conversation about how we came to be on this land.
One caseworker said, “Two sneakers for the feet — sometimes more important than learning an Indian dance.” How much does that sentiment persist?
I’ve got four binders on my desk — like 2,500 pages — of statements given to the commission. Our team read through all of those to get an idea of how widespread this attitude was. These are interviews with people who knew they were on the record, who didn’t feel like they said anything particularly objectionable. It says a lot about institutional racism and the unconscious bias we all have. Maybe viewers will think about their own blind spots.
What was your feeling when Native organizers asked the white people at a TRC event, including you, to leave?
That scene became a cornerstone of the film, hitting on the need to witness what’s happening versus the need for privacy for the people sharing stories. Some locals had come in and sort of said, “Whoa, look at all the people here I don’t know.” Those of us who’d come from away were preventing the people the TRC was ostensibly serving from participating.
What sort of feedback have you gotten from Wabanaki people?
Maulian Dana — she’s the Penobscot Nation ambassador — said, “I know all these people in this film, and I never knew any of these stories.” Another Penobscot woman, who’s 70 and has never told her story, told us that now she wants to have it be heard.
A big question seems to be if the act of testifying can truly offer catharsis.
A Passamaquoddy woman, Georgina Sappier-Richardson, really opened up the heart of the matter. She asked the commissioners, “Some of the wounds are so deep — how do you propose that we’re supposed to be healing?” It was one of those moments — after it, we were like, “Wow, I can’t imagine this not being in the film.” Now, we’re actually working on a short film about Georgina and her journey to reconnect with her identity and culture.
So you’re not dropping these stories.
Definitely not. There’s another short film we’re hoping to produce, focused on the 1755 proclamation issued from Boston that put bounties on captured or scalped Penobscots. We only learned about it because we saw the document posted in Penobscot and other Wabanaki tribal offices. It’s a way for them to say, “Here’s evidence you tried to kill us, but we’re still here.”
Dawnland’s PBS premiere is Nov. 5. University of Southern Maine hosts a screening and discussion with the filmmakers on Nov. 16 at Hannaford Hall (88 Bedford St., Portland).