‘Dawnland’: Bringing the stories of stolen children into the light


Dawnland, a documentary about Native American cultural survival and stolen children is screened in Gentry Hall on October 16, 2019. A discussion followed the film to continue Native American Cultural Programs' events for Indigenous Peoples Week.  Photo by Judah Shingleton

Dawnland, a documentary about Native American cultural survival and stolen children is screened in Gentry Hall on October 16, 2019. A discussion followed the film to continue Native American Cultural Programs’ events for Indigenous Peoples Week. Photo by Judah Shingleton

The Wabanaki, also known as “the greeters of the light” and “people of the dawn”, had occupied what is now Maine for 13,000 years. Through the Maine Wabanaki-State Truth and Reconciliation Commission (MWTRC), these people were able to bring their stories to the light, and take steps toward healing from a century of having their children stolen from them by welfare organizations. Native American Cultural Programs (NACP) held a screening and discussion of “Dawnland” Wednesday, which explored and documented the efforts of the MWTRC. 

One in four Native American children were separated from their parents and put in foster homes, orphanages and boarding schools by U.S. welfare organizations, under the belief that they were better off growing up “not Indian,” at the time of the creation of the Indian Child Welfare Act of 1978, which was created to return the determination of children’s fates back to the tribes. 

Despite this act, the trauma caused by separating families continued to warp the lives of the victims. The MWTRC was formed in 2012 by Maine Wabanaki REACH to investigate the treatment of Native American children by welfare organizations, which includes mistreatment in their new homes and the manner in which they were taken away from their families, and to promote healing within the community. Two of the five commissioners, kisedtanamoogk and Sandy White Hawk, were Native American, while the other three, Maine’s Secretary of State (at the time) Matthew Dunlap, Gail Werrbach and Carol Wishcamper, were white. 

The act of forcibly removing children from Native American communities began in the late 1800s under the idea that they needed to be rescued from savagery and brought into civilization. So-called Indian boarding schools dotted the country, where the resident children were not allowed to speak their native language, wear their traditional clothing or return home to their families. Social integration was a form of eradicating Native Americans, reducing their need for rights, land or culture, according to kisedtanamoogk. 

The Wabanaki people felt that getting their stories out there was the best way to help heal their communities. To do so, MWTRC collected statements from both stolen Native American children and parents whose kids were taken. These statements included mistreatment by foster parents, such as rape and extreme punishments and the psychological impact the division of these families caused to the victims. Because these children were separated from their tribes and forced to assimilate by their foster homes, they experienced a complete loss of identity.  

It is clear from these statements that these traumas haunted the victims for the rest of their life beyond their time in foster care. One woman expressed that the worst part of being in the foster homes for her was that she never learned the dances of her people. Another woman explained how her abusive foster home and loss of identity led to her becoming an addict. She said that it wasn’t until five years after sobering up that she was finally able to connect with her own daughter and stop repeating the negative parenting practices that her foster family had subjected her to. 

As MWTRC continued to meet with and hear the stories of the victims, the presence of white commissioners and other white allies prevented some of the Native Americans from feeling comfortable telling their stories. This caused the white individuals to be asked to not be in the room during these meetings.  

Dunlap said that through the commission process, he realized that 500 years of mistrust toward white people would not disappear overnight. At the same time, the white commissioners felt that the solution, the reconciliation goal, could not be reached without them. The Native American members, especially White Hawk, felt that the goal of healing through telling these stories was more important to them and their communities. Most victims only began feeling comfortable enough to tell their stories with the white members around once the commission fully entered the community. 

“As a UConn student attending a predominantly white institution, I feel like we in all the other communities on campus need to advocate more for the Native American Cultural Programs, especially since they’re such a small department as opposed to PRLACC or AsACC or the other cultural centers,” Julia Nguyen, a fifth-semester allied health sciences major, said. “I think as students we have a responsibility to advocate for those who might not have the same numbers or have the same voice as other student populations that are more prevalent on college campuses. So what I think I ultimately took away from this film was the importance of advocating and supporting communities in need.” 

MWTRC released its findings in 2015, and revealed that although the Indian Child Welfare Act helped, more work still needs to be done. They determined that what had been done to the Wabanaki people, along with other Native Americans, can only be called cultural genocide. 

The film ended by stating that even after all of this work by the MWTRC, Native children today are three times more likely than white children to enter foster care: as well as nine times more likely in South Dakota and 20 times more likely in Minnesota. 

Kaylee Jangula Mootz led a discussion after the screening, beginning by asking how we can be better neighbors to local tribes. Students in the audience said that some ways we can accomplish this is by learning about the culture of local tribes at events such as this, becoming aware of who the land we live on was originally occupied by and by taking responsibility for this land and its wellbeing. Mootz also pointed out that the significance of the statistics of Native children currently in foster care offered at the end of the film show that this isn’t a problem of the past. Families are still being divided and cultural genocide continues to be prevalent depsite the Indian Child Welfare Act and the awareness MWTRC brought to the problem. 

“Students growing up in their school curriculums, they’re taught that Natives are things of the past,” Sage Phillips, a third-semester political science major, Native American indigenous studies minor and member of NACP, said. “They’re taught the tragedies that surround things such as genocide, Columbus, things like that. But they’re not focusing on tragedies that are specific to things such as what was mentioned in ‘Dawnland’ and the taking of Native children from their homes in the hopes of turning them into ‘white culture.’ I think the purpose of showing it was really to bring awareness to the fact that this is something that happened but also that this is something happening today.” 

Rebecca Maher is a senior staff writer for The Daily Campus. She can be reached via email at rebecca.l.maher@uconn.edu.

Leave a Reply