A near capacity crowd packed the Peabody Essex Museum’s Morse Auditorium last Friday for a special screening of the award-winning documentary “Dawnland.” Presented by the Salem Film Festival, the film exposes the untold story of how generations of Maine’s Native American children were systematically taken from their families and cultures and placed in white foster homes as part of a government sponsored program to “save them from being Indian.”
Many of those children suffered devastating emotional, physical and psychological harm at the hands of the adults who tried to erase their cultural identity. Among them is Dawn Neptune Adams, taken from her mother at age 4, who tells of having her mouth washed out with soap for speaking her native Wabanaki language.
She and scores of other members of the five tribes of Maine’s Wabanaki people shared their stories of the horrific abuse they suffered as foster children in public statements made to Maine’s truth and reconciliation commission (TRC), the first government-sanctioned TRC in the U.S. Its three-fold mission is: to document what happened; to give Wabanaki people a place to share their stories, and to make recommendations to the Maine child welfare system on how to fix its practices.
“Dawnland” filmmakers Adam Mazo and Ben Pender-Cudlip follow the TRC to contemporary Wabanaki communities for an intimate behind-the-scenes look at the untold narratives of those who endured Maine’s policy of cultural genocide as they struggle to reveal their truths and heal.
“Sometimes examining our past can help frame the current dialogue. ‘Dawnland’ touches upon an important part of our country’s history that isn’t as well known as it should be,” said SFF Program Director during a post-screening Q&A attended by Co-director Pender-Cudlip, Producer Dr. Mishy Lesser and “Dawnland” participant Dawn Neptune Adams.
Adams was born in Bangor, Maine on a reservation of the Penobscot Nation. At first, she did not want to be filmed. “I am a shadow warrior. I am not one to be in the spotlight,” she said.
It was not an easy decision for her to make a public statement to the TRC. “I had put my story away in childhood. Luckily, I took it out. It had been festering,” she said. “We’ve all been hearing this inside of us. When you honor us by listening, you help us carry this weight.”
Co-director Pender-Cudlip shared his initial concern about making a film that would both be accessible to all audiences and do justice to the survivors’ stories. He was mindful of his sensitive position as a non-Native filmmaker, and asked permission from every participant everyday, even if they had agreed to be filmed the day before.
“Lots of people who look like us went to the Native people wanting to tell their story and screwed it up. We didn’t want to be those guys,” he said.
SFF Festival Director and co-founder, Joe Cultrera, is grateful that SFF and PEM could work together on this special screening (SFF2019 is scheduled from March 29 through April 4). “When we find a film that might be too dated by the next fest, and we can bring the film team or participants for a post screening discussion, then we try to make something happen. “Dawnland” was a perfect fit, not only for us, but also for PEM’s programs concerning Native American culture,” he said.
“Dawnland” was produced by The Upstander Project, a filmmaking and educational collaborative created in Boston in 2009 to challenge indifference to injustice and raise awareness of the need for upstanders, especially among teachers and their students.
Upstander Learning Director Mishy Lesser, Ed.D., whose work focuses on genocide and human rights education, explained why her company undertook this project. “I was morally uncomfortable teaching genocide in faraway places without dealing with genocide here in this country. Upstander was founded to confront indifference to injustice,” she said.
She researched and wrote the five-inquiry “Dawnland” Teacher’s Guide, available for free at http://dawnland.org/teachers-guide/. The guide contains resources and tools to help teachers tell “the untold history of this land.”
“The goal is to get this teacher’s guide into the hands of every history and social studies teacher so people have the chance to know more than I knew growing up,” Lesser said. She referred to her schooling about the founding of America as “the history of the people on the boat.” She aims to teach those same lessons from the perspective of “the people on the shore.”
Several in the audience thanked Lesser for both making the film and creating the teacher’s guide. “This is something I knew nothing about. Students, especially in the lower grades, need to learn about it,” said one teacher who is using the guide in her classroom.
Adams has grown and healed a lot in the 4-5 years between first sharing her story with the TRC and today. “I don’t recognize that person as me,” she said of seeing herself in the film. “It’s like pulling the scab off a wound, letting the bad stuff out and rehealing.”
Initially skeptical, she now thinks “Dawnland” is both beautiful and necessary. “What’s the point in making a public statement if it’s just going to be archived somewhere?” she said.
“Dawnland” was sponsored by PEM with hospitality sponsorship by Salem Waterfront Hotel and Suites. Community partners were: the Massachusetts Center for Native American Awareness, the North American Indian Center of Boston, Voices Against Injustice (formerly Salem Award Foundation) and Salem No Place for Hate.