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‘Dawnland’ screening provokes difficult discussion

“Whose land are we on today?” asked Mishy Lesser, learning director of the team behind the film, at the beginning of the Indigenous People’s Day screening of “Dawnland.” It was a point that was reiterated throughout the film and resulting panel conversation, the ramifications of which have perhaps not been fully considered by Brandeis University. If we are indeed occupiers of someone else’s land, and the colonial project is not yet over, then how should an organization that says it’s devoted to social justice respond?

The film was a documentary–set to air on PBS’s Independent Lens program later in the fall–telling the story of a Maine Truth and Reconciliation Commission into the alleged abuses in the state’s child welfare system from 1978 to 2012. 1978 was the year the Indian Child Welfare Act was passed, a first pass by Congress at providing some sort of protections to maintain indigenous communities–to keep Native American children from being sent out to white foster homes.

The Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) was the first of its kind in the United States, a governmental program examining “what has happened to Wabanaki children and families between now and 1978, when the Indian Child Welfare Act (ICWA) was passed…specifically centered on the State of Maine’s child welfare practices.”

Inspired by a similar 1990s South African commission by leaders such as Desmond Tutu and Nelson Mandela, the commission took statements from hundreds of indigenous persons in Maine, and then wrote a detailed, 90-page report on their findings.

But “Dawnland,” the documentary about the process, focuses on the people and their stories. There’s harrowing footage of Wabanaki people giving their testimonies about individual experiences in the Maine Child Welfare System. “I can’t get over the nightmares,” one older woman says, trembling. “Where was the state? They were supposed to protect us.”

The film draws a parallel between 19th and 20th century practices of taking indigenous children, shipping them hundreds of miles away, cutting their hair and severing them from their culture. A young woman, detailing her experience in the foster care system, spoke about how when she finally returned to her community and was at her first pow-wow, she didn’t know how to dance. Her culture had been taken from her.

As people speak of their experiences and are heard, it’s obvious that this kind of structure has been sorely needed. It was an opportunity for the hurt to finally give voice to the pain they’d been holding up inside. “It takes a little bit of a load off us,” the same older woman says later on, “And makes us realize that, yes, there are people that really care.”

The process becomes more difficult as the TRC moves past collecting stories and into deciding what actions to recommend taking. Near the end of the film, one of the commissioners on the TRC, Maine’s Secretary of State Matt Dunlap, talks about how 500 years of hurt and deception aren’t just going to go away. The question that “Dawnland” provokes is “What should we do now?”

The motto of the TRC is “Truth, Healing, Change.” I saw a lot of truth, and the first steps toward healing, but change seemed far off. Mishy Lesser, in the panel talk afterwards, filled in some of the gaps, saying that there’s now a committee of indigenous women who meet monthly with Maine Child Welfare—moving away from “the view from the boat,” as Lesser called it.

That might be the problem with Dawnland: the subject being of such scope and profound impact, the continuing legacy of which we cannot come close to grappling with—this story cannot be told in a 54 minute documentary edited for television. But it started a discussion where there previously was none.

The talk after, featuring panelists from Brandeis and abroad, chaired by Professor Gordie Fellman of the sociology department, featured disparate voices giving input and feedback about the ideas the film had provoked. While the panel itself was uninspiring, offering little in terms of practical means of grappling with and rectifying this extremely problematic past, the questions and comments from the audience elevated the conversation.

This changed, however, when members of local indigenous tribes in the audience stood up and asked these questions. One man, from the Cothutikut Mattakeeset Massachuset tribe, asked if the University was willing to put its resources towards change, “Are you willing to spend your money? Because you’ve got thousands of people here in Massachusetts.” As he asked for tangibles, the panel visibly squirmed—especially as he asked about how they’d go about taking things “from the intellectual from the real.”

That question went relatively unanswered. The lesson is that Indigenous People’s Day and the “Dawnland” documentary are a good start, but they’re only the first steps. Brandeis as an institution can’t claim ignorance or absolution. This isn’t our land.

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