Documentary Examines Forced Separation of Native American Families

  • Anna Townsend, age 9, of Fallon, Nev., testifies on April 8, 1974 before the Subcommittee on Indian Affairs of the U.S. Senate. (Courtesy NBC Universal)

  • Navajo children, June 19, 1929. (Courtesy University of South Carolina)

  • Father and child, Indian Island, Maine, a still image from the documentary "Dawnland." (Upstander Project - Ben Pender-Cudlip)

  • Georgina Sappier-Richardson shares her story during a community visit by the Maine Wabanaki-State Child Welfare Truth and Reconciliation Commission, a scene filmed during the making of the documentary film "Dawnland." (Upstander Project - Ben Pender-Cudlip)

Valley News Staff Writer
Published: 10/11/2018 11:41:36 PM
Modified: 10/12/2018 4:08:38 PM

The film’s storyline is fragmentary, its focal point like a crack in a wall.

A young girl, chin tipped up to the microphone, fingers toying with a bead necklace, attempts to tell a room full of congressmen about the abuse her brother endured, but she chokes on an enormous sob and can’t go on. In a black-and-white photo of American Indian children at a boarding school, identical in their close-cropped and bobbed haircuts and plain clothing, the number of children grows larger and larger as the camera zooms out, and then, a moment later, the image becomes just one of many pinpoints on a map of the United States. A woman tells of having her mouth washed out with soap for speaking Penobscot and abruptly stops. The screen goes black.

Throughout the new documentary Dawnland, screening Oct. 19 in Dartmouth College’s Loew Auditorium, a sense of incompleteness, of halted revelations and impenetrable grief, pervades. As it explores a dark and largely overlooked aspect of American life, the film opens just a tiny fissure, grants only the smallest suggestion of healing.

It is, nevertheless, a start.

“It’s horrible to watch, and it breaks my heart every time I see it,” Esther Anne, an activist for Maine’s tribal nations, said in a telephone interview from her home in Old Town, Maine. “It’s hard to hear it. It’s hard to know it ... but people have to face the truth.”

The film, co-produced by Dartmouth professor Bruce Duthu, examines the impact of child welfare practices on Maine’s Wabanaki confederacy, which comprises four tribal communities — Penobscot, Passamaquoddy, Maliseet and Micmac. Despite the passage of the Indian Child Welfare Act in 1978, which was designed to protect children’s cultural ties, American Indian children in Maine — and around the country — continued to be removed from their homes and communities at an alarming rate. Placed with white foster families — many of which held the notion that Indian children had to be “civilized,” their language and history scrubbed away — some endured horrible abuse. Few had ever shared their stories publicly before the filming began. Some had never spoken about their experiences at all.

“It was like the big family secret that nobody talked about,” Dawn Neptune Adams, one of about a dozen Wabanaki people featured in the film and about 150 who have provided testimony to the Maine Wabanaki-State Child Welfare Truth and Reconciliation Commission, said in a telephone interview from her home in Bangor, Maine.

Formed in collaboration between Maine’s Wabanaki tribes and the state’s child and family services organizations, the commission operates under a government-sanctioned mandate to gather the testimony of Wabanaki people who’d been seized by the state as children and to issue recommendations for restorative justice. It issued a report of its findings in 2015.

Wabanaki activists allowed Boston-based filmmakers Adam Mazo and Ben Pender-Cudlip to document the process in the hope that their work would provide a template for state-tribal relations around the country.

“We had no money to do it on our own. We had to trust somebody,” said Anne, who serves on the board of an advocacy organization that convened the Truth and Reconciliation Commission.

Trust, however, was in relatively short supply as the commission’s work began. The film, which juxtaposes footage of Maine’s natural beauty with bleak scenes in living rooms and community buildings, shows the commissioners’ struggles to get members of the Wabanaki communities to attend their meetings in the first place and, once there, to share their stories.

“I was kind of reluctant to give a public statement at first,” said Adams, who speaks in the film about her foster mother washing her mouth out with soap and telling her she was saving her from being Penobscot. “It meant I had to unpack all that trauma that I’d been stuffing down and deal with it.”

Adams was 4 years old when her mother left her and her 2-year-old brother for a prolonged time with a babysitter and the babysitter subsequently left them at a grocery store. Placed with a white family 13 miles away from their biological family, she was cut off from her culture, forbidden to speak her language and abused physically and emotionally. When her foster mother was investigated for abuse, she coached Adams and her brother on what to say.

“The state had a responsibility to put us somewhere where we would be safe,” said Adams, now an activist in her community. “We weren’t safe.”

It’s little wonder that people like Adams have a difficult time opening up, particularly to the white community, said Anne, who is Passamaquoddy by birth. To help build trust between the groups, Anne and other advocates ensured the tribal communities had maximum control in how the commission entered and engaged in tribal territories.

Mazo, co-director and co-producer of the film, also recognized the fragility of the relationship and agreed to give the tribal communities an unusual level of control.

“We went through a deliberate and intentional process of sharing the film with the people in the film,” Mazo said in a telephone interview. “When you’re making a film about a community that is not yours, it’s essential to involve them in the process. Otherwise, you’re just re-enacting colonizing behavior ... extracting stories for your own profit.”

To ensure that the film was factually accurate and included proper context, Mazo enlisted the help of Duthu, the Samson Occom Professor of Native American Studies at Dartmouth and an expert on tribal sovereignty law, first as a consultant, then as co-producer.

To understand what happened to the Wabanaki children featured in the film, viewers have to understand the long struggle to subjugate Native people around the country, said Duthu, who grew up in the United Houma Nation in Dulac, La., and remembers attending an all-Indian school as a child.

A network of federal laws enacted over the years preserves the sovereignty of tribal nations such as the four federally recognized nations spread out across eastern Maine, comprising roughly 8,000 Native people. The nations have their own tribal governments and manage their own resources, but the states have retained power over most issues of family law. Therein lies the conflict.

Not only were Native children placed in foster care at a much higher rate than white children, they were often taken from their homes on flimsy pretenses, Duthu said. And those who were taken for legitimate reasons were often victims of intergenerational trauma. Adams’ grandparents, for example, were among the thousands of Native young people ripped from their tribes and sent to boarding schools around the country. It was all part of a systemic, calculated effort to sever young people from their political and cultural origins, Duthu said.

“The film and the subject matter highlight the ongoing assault on tribal culture and tribal sovereignty,” Duthu said.

Tribal nations finally gained a victory in 1978, with the passage of the Indian Child Welfare Act, which ruled that Native children who needed to be placed in foster care must be placed within their tribal communities whenever possible. The act, however, was not always heeded by social workers. Findings of non-compliance in Maine were what eventually led to the formation of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission.

Though the commission’s report and findings are complete, much work remains to be done. As Anne acknowledges in the film, the concepts of truth and reconciliation themselves are sometimes at odds with one another. White people are often eager to race ahead to reconciliation, she said, while those who have been victimized need more time to speak their truth. Nor will undoing the structures of colonization happen overnight.

Just this week, by coincidence, a federal judge in Texas ruled the Indian Children’s Welfare Act unconstitutional on the grounds that it violates the Fifth Amendment by giving Native American families preferential treatment in adoption proceedings. The ruling throws up a new obstacle for tribal nations just as the commission and the film have lent them a voice and provides a foothold for special interest groups whose aim is to delegitimize tribal communities, Duthu said.

“I think they dislike the idea of separate government ... once you get rid of tribes, you have access to their resources,” he said.

Nevertheless, the stories that have emerged from the Wabanaki communities have begun a healing process.

“It has been a very cathartic process for me,” said Adams, who suffered a breakdown after reading the commission’s report for a college project but has since found a measure of peace. In addition to allowing her to face her trauma, the commission’s work connected Adams with a community of people who had suffered in similar ways. Sharing her story through the film is both a way to ensure that other children don’t suffer the way she did and to ease her own suffering.

“We’ve carried this trauma ourselves our entire lives,” she said. “When people watch the film and listen to us speak, they’re carrying the trauma with us. They’re easing our load.”

Important and powerful in their own right, the stories in the film also provide a cautionary tale, said Duthu, who will honor American Indian heritage at next week’s screening by acknowledging the Abenaki land on which Dartmouth is built.

“We should all be concerned when states direct the massive power that they have at families,” he said. “It’s truly attacking the innocent.”

The sense that healing and restoration are still beyond the horizon is evident even at the end of the film. After showing heart-warming glimpses of the communities that have formed around the truth-telling process, the film concludes with present-day statistics about American Indian children in foster care around the country.

Anne hopes those numbers will begin to change as people hear the stories in the film, which has played at film festivals and a variety of venues nationwide and will be shown on PBS next month. She thinks it’s fitting that the process of truth and healing should begin with Maine’s Wabanaki people, “the people of the dawn.”

Dawnland, part of the Hopkins Center for the Arts’ Indigenous Rising Film Series, will screen in Dartmouth’s Loew Auditorium on Oct. 19 at 5 p.m. and 8 p.m. Tickets cost $5-$10. Co-director Adam Mazo, co-producer Bruce Duthu, and Wabanaki activist Esther Anne will lead a post-film discussion after both screenings. For more information, visit will be featured on PBS’s Independent Lens on Nov. 5. Check local listings for times.

Sarah Earle can be reached at or 603-727-3268.


The co-directors of the film  Dawnland are Adam Mazo and Ben Pender-Cudlip. An earlier version of this stor  y misspelled Pender-Cudlip's name. In addition, Maine Wabanaki-State Child Welfare Truth and Reconciliation Commission member gkisedtanamoogk will not be attending the post-film discussions on Oct. 19 at Dartmouth's Loew Auditorium as originally scheduled. 

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