‘Dawnland’ discussion sheds light on Indigenous child removal in the U.S.

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selective focus photo of brown dreamcatcher
The Emmy award-winning film “Dawnland” was released in 2018 and shares the untold story of the American government’s forced removal of Native American children from their families and the transfer of these children into white households. Photo by Artem Beliaikin on Pexels.com

The University of Connecticut is built on the Indigenous lands of the Mohegan, Mashantucket Pequot, Eastern Pequot, Schaghticoke, Golden Hill Paugussett, Nipmuc and Lenape peoples. While it is easy to regard Charles and Augustus Storrs as the first landlords of the place we now refer to as Storrs, Conn., we must remember that the land was first cared for by generations of Native Americans whose descendants no longer inhabit their homeland. 

As American citizens, we often know very little about the atrocities committed against Native Americans, especially those that occurred after the period where Native peoples were removed to make way for white settlement. While it is easy to think that these sins were from a distant past, many atrocities have been committed by the U.S. government over the past 100 years, yet these incidents never seem to make an appearance in American history textbooks. This is exactly what the film, “Dawnland,” sought to uncover. 

While it is easy to think that these sins were from a distant past, many atrocities have been committed by the U.S. government over the past 100 years, yet these incidents never seem to make an appearance in American history textbooks.

Yesterday evening, the Human Rights Institute and the Dodd Human Rights Impact sponsored a panel discussion moderated by Glenn Mitoma, director of Dodd Impact and associate professor of human rights and education. The panel brought together collaborators of the film including Maine-Wabanaki Truth and Reconciliation Commission co-chair gkisedtanamoogk of the Mashpee Wampanoag, and member Gail Werrbach. “Dawnland” co-director Adam Mazo, and Upstander Project Learning director Mishy Lesser were also in attendance, discussing the importance of the issues brought forward in the film. 

The Emmy award-winning film “Dawnland” was released in 2018 and shares the untold story of the American government’s forced removal of Native American children from their families and the transfer of these children into white households. White, middle-class social workers would go into the Indigenous communities of Maine and deem parents of the Wabanaki “unfit guardians” with no legitimate legal justification besides their “different” culture. This occurred as early as the 1870s with Wabanaki children being forced to attend schools that sought to break the children’s ties with their cultural roots. Through the 1950s, ‘60s and ‘70s, Native American children began being placed into white homes to orce the children to adopt the values of white America. 

The Official Trailer for Dawnland. Trailer retrieved via YouTube.

The film focuses on the effects these government actions had on the lives of the children removed from their families. Many of the children, now adults, still remember the traumatic moments of being torn from their parents and being placed into the custody of adults who had no respect for their way of life. One woman in the film recalled bathing with her sister in bleach so they could turn white and finally gain the respect of their adopted parents. For many, their clashing cultures created an identity crisis they still face today. 

Mishy Lesser described the project as “a film about the abuse of state power, and people’s resistance to that, definitions of that, trauma from that, and process of healing.” 

“a film about the abuse of state power, and people’s resistance to that, definitions of that, trauma from that, and process of healing.”

The film tells a practically unknown story that evokes the “Why didn’t I know this?” reaction from its audience. Lesser said this is not a coincidence, but rather the effect of predatory capitalism. 

The dominant narrative of American history and American ideology is something we must “unlearn.”  

“For those of us who are non-Native, we have to unlearn a lot, we have to face the twisteries and we have to educate ourselves,” Lesser said. “Without that, we can’t take that next step.” 

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