KITTERY, Maine — A new documentary film bearing witness to the systemic pain and devastation caused by the attempted erasure of Native American people from Maine’s landscape is making rounds across the state.
On Saturday, “Dawnland” was shown at the Kittery Community Center, hosted by Kittery’s Advocates For All. The film follows the work of Maine’s truth and reconciliation commission (TRC) as it traveled the state to gather testimony about the state’s child welfare practices in tribal communities of Maliseet, Micmac, Passamaquoddy and Penobscot. Native children were taken from their families and placed in foster care at unprecedented rates, simply because it was the system’s view that they’d be better off with white families, as depicted in the film.
The separations cased irreparable harm for generations of Native Americans in the 20th century, reverberating into today. Maine’s TRC was the first government-sanctioned commission in the United States, and embarked on a meaningful yet painful journey to hear the truths of Native communities across the state.
In the 1970s, one in four Native children nationwide was living in non-Native foster care, adoptive homes or boarding schools. Many of the Native Americans shown in the film described growing up in white abusive foster homes without any sense of their Native identity. One Native woman shared that her foster mother said she was “saving” her from being Penobscot.
The TRC spent more than two years traveling the state, and eventually released its final report in 2015, which detailed key findings and recommendations for further action. The TRC had collected testimony from more than 150 Native individuals.
“The movie packs an emotional punch,” said Mishy Lesser, learning director for the Upstander Project, which produced the film.
Native people, Lesser said, are the voices from the shore, while non-Natives are the view from the boat. Reconciling both sides, she explained, is a difficult process. She called Dawnland a “difficult, but hopeful and affirming story.”
Tom Reynolds, community organizer for Maine-Wabanaki REACH, said the TRC’s report “was just the beginning.” The work of his organization quickly became ensuring the commission’s recommendations were starting to be implemented.
While the frequency of Native children placed in foster care has improved over the last several years in Maine, that’s not the case for other states. In Minnesota, Native American children are 21 more times likely to be in foster care.
“Wabanaki history is Maine’s history, rather than separate,” Lesser said. “We need everybody’s help here. To try and contribute to this shifting of the narrative.”
Lesser said she’s currently promoting Dawnland’s teaching guide, which provides educators with the tools to teach truth and honest history in their classes.
Non-Native communities are now tasked with the transition from being occupiers, to becoming neighbors with legitimacy, Lesser said, quoting a member of the TRC featured in the film.
"This time is now and the movie can be a catalyst for you," she said.
Danielle Hoffman, a member of Kittery’s Advocates For All, said a main goal of the organization is to promote a local culture free of bias. There was a demonstrated need for more opportunities for the community to come together in education and dialogue. The screening of Dawnland, she said, was an opportunity to “hear the voices of those who have been typically left out of American culture.”