The documentary “Dawnland” tells the story of Native American children who for the better part of the 20th century had been taken from their families and placed in foster care with white families. Many experienced abuse and were stripped of their cultural identity.
The film also tells the story of the first truth and reconciliation commission for Native people, which was launched in Maine.
“Dawnland” airs nationwide Monday night as part of the PBS series “Independent Lens.”
Maine Calling Host Jennifer Rooks spoke with Dawn Neptune Adams, a Penobscot who was taken and placed in foster care by the state of Maine. She also spoke with Esther Anne, a Passamaquoddy who served on the commission, and with filmmaker Adam Mazo, who says the inspiration for the film was a news story on the commission produced by Maine Public Radio more than five years ago:
Mazo: At the time we were doing a lot of teaching around genocide through our organization the Upstander Project and a film we made called “Coexist.” We would say we were teaching about genocide in a faraway place in Rwanda through this film, “Coexist.” but we also want to acknowledge genocide in our own country’s history and we would talk privately about wanting to do more to teach about that and learn about that. So when we heard about the TRC in Maine it seemed like a golden opportunity to be able to do that.
Rooks: Dawn, you’re one of the people who testified before the TRC, and that experience is captured in the film “Dawnland.” What was the experience like for you? Did you know right away when you heard about the truth and reconciliation commission that you wanted to testify or did you have to think about it?
Neptune Adams: Oh goodness no, I had to think about it. I was asked to give a public statement by someone I trusted, someone who was a friend. I was reluctant. I didn’t want to open that can of worms. I was kind of scared of the healing process that I would have to go through in order to be able to to talk about it. In the end, it ended up being a very positive experience for me and I hope that it’s going to help people.
Rooks: We’re going to hear a clip from the film, and Dawn, this is you. You have up to this point told the commission about the white woman you were placed with and how she washed your mouth out with soap for speaking your native tongue. And then you come back to your tribe:
After being in my foster home for so long and not being able to even admit to being Penobscot or talk about it or be curious about it or anything, I was like, “Yes, I’m finally Penobscot again.” And I was going to my first powwow, and I did nothing but hide because I didn’t know how to dance. I think that’s the biggest thing for me is the loss of identity. People going from one world to another, they don’t belong in either. They don’t feel like they belong in either. My foster mother told me that I was at her house because nobody on the reservation wanted me and that I was there out of the goodness of her heart. And that she would she would save me from being Penobscot.
Rooks: You know, that’s really hard to listen to. Dawn, I want to ask you, do you still feel that way? Do you still feel torn?
Neptune Adams: It really is hard to listen to. I don’t even recognize the person that I was when I gave that statement. I feel like I’ve come so far through this healing process I’ve been pushed into. Yeah, I do still feel torn. It’s always there in the back of my mind. I feel sometimes that I have to ask permission to be there, you know, to be in those circles, to exist as a Penobscot person when it’s really all in my head. And it was placed there in foster care.
Rooks: Esther, you sit with many of the people giving their testimony. These are the people you love, these are your friends, and you’re sitting there holding their hands and holding them as they are obviously going through a lot of pain.
Anne: I know in this process we had a lot of fears, even in 2008, when we started talking about it, we were really afraid what it was going to look like, what the impact was going to be, how difficult it was going to be for people to share initially, and then how they would feel after. We were afraid of all of that. So it is hard but being a native person is hard. And there’s so much grief and trauma, but there’s so much strength and beauty and joy. And that’s what that’s what we hang on to.
Rooks: Adam what are you hoping people come away with after seeing “Dawnland”? [00:04:29][2.8]
Mazo: We hope that people will see Wabanaki people and hear Wabanaki people and listen to Wabanaki people and understand what we as settlers have done to contribute to their oppression and to their colonization, ongoing colonization, that people like me perpetuate. I say that without trying to shame or blame. It’s not about shame or blame or making people feel guilty, it’s about seeing it. And as gkisedtanamoogk has said, one of the commissioners of the TRC, for people who see the film or who learn about the work that REACH and the TRC have done, now you know, and let’s make it so that the next generation of settlers cannot say I didn’t know.
This interview was edited for clarity.
Originally published Nov. 5 at 5:56 p.m. ET.