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Arts and Culture

Documentary film 'Bounty' confronts government-issued scalp bounties against Indigenous people

In the new short film, "Bounty," three Penobscot Nation families highlight a disturbing and little-known chapter of colonial-era history: the bounty system used to reward white settlers for the scalps of indigenous men, women and even children who had been declared their enemies.

To make the film, co-directors Maulian Dana and Dawn Neptune Adams took their children and other family members to Boston's Old State House to read the death warrant that was issued for their Penobscot ancestors in 1755. Their research has found that there were nearly 70 government-issued bounties for indigenous people in what is now New England.

Note: This interview has been lightly edited for clarity.

Maulian Dana: This came together as the result of this knowledge that Penobscot people have about these bounties throughout history on a lot of the tribes in this region, and this one specifically targeted Penobscot people. And we were very aware that we might have this kind of dark knowledge about the true history, but that a lot of the world in the country probably doesn't. So it seems like a good educational opportunity to shine some truth on this story, and to infuse an element of hope and survival and kind of these layers of generations by bringing our children along, you know, and read the document in the room where it was written.

Robbie Feinberg: So for both of you, what was it like to actually be in that Old State House where this was signed, as, as you read this proclamation?

Dawn Neptune Adams: It is a very heavy atmosphere there, you can feel the weight of history, you know, bearing down on you in that building. But as Maulian said, it's a testament to our resilience, we're still here, we're still practicing our culture, our tradition, our languages, and our connection to the land, water and all our relations.

Feinberg: One piece of this history that really stood out to me when reading about this is the sheer legacy of these kinds of death warrants and others like it. These bounty hunters were actually granted thousands of acres of land from the people who they scalped and in cities like Westbrook were actually named after some of these hunters. So just how widespread is the legacy and continued effects of these acts?

Dana: I think sometimes we compartmentalize issues, we think about historical things as being totally separate from our lives and interactions and relationships today. And I think it's important when a lot of people are thinking about the indigenous experience or the Wabanki experience in our homeland, we need to shine a light on this thread that looks at that intergenerational trauma from these horrific, genocidal acts to today, where we have increased rates of disease and crime and addiction. And you know, those things didn't just happen. We're not especially predisposed to these kind of negative outcomes. There is that echo of this trauma that has impacted our people. And that's important from a policy standpoint, from a social standpoint, it's really critical that we all understand the impact of that history on everything today.

Neptune Adams: Genocide began when colonization began here. And it continues in different forms today. We have battles with state trying to take ownership of our river so they can continue to pollute it. We have various other issues going on, and it all stems from colonization. It's continued colonization, continued genocide, but in a different form.

Feinberg: This video is also it's only one small part of this large multimedia site that's been created around bounty. I noticed there's this teacher's guide, research, primary documents -- all of these different educational tools. In Maine, we've had this law for two decades, requiring that schools teach Wabanaki history, but tribal historians have said that that hasn't really happened in a lot of schools. How are you both hoping that this film and the other resources will be used across the state in schools?

Dana: It can be a very, very powerful resource for teachers. It's not very long, it's perfect to show to kids, it does come with all of this curriculum. So I would really encourage Maine teachers and teachers everywhere to incorporate this into their Wabankai studies.

Neptune Adams: And I think it's really important that teachers have the tools. I can tell a short story about when my child went into kindergarten, and we did the kindergarten orientation. When we got to the library, I noticed that there wasn't a single book in that library about Wabanaki people. When I brought it up to the principal of the school, he was shocked, but not because of the reason that I thought he would be shocked. He was shocked to find out that there were still Wabanaki people in Maine. This was a principal of an elementary school.

Feinberg: What do you hope that people take away from this documentary? And are there any certain actions that you're hoping that people will take after watching this?

Dana: I hope that people feel a little uncomfortable and that it wakes them up to some truths that they have to kind of sit with. And then I hope that they are encouraged to support the tribes in Maine, in our political endeavors and our social endeavors.

Neptune Adams: And I believe the first step is education. Again, educating ourselves and others. Being in solidarity with us is the goal. Wabanaki people and indigenous people are targeted and silenced and marginalized and it helps to have friends, allies and accomplices stand with us in these battles.