Screening in Dedham Sheds Light On Indigenous Abuse

The Emmy-award winning documentary was shown Saturday at the Dedham Community Theatre to more than 40 people with a discussion afterward.

In celebration of Indigenous People’s Day, the Dedham Community Theatre on Saturday screened “Dawnland,” a poignant documentary capturing the systemic abuse of Native peoples in the social service system that has had lasting cultural ramifications.

The Emmy award-winning film captured the stories of the members of four Indigenous tribes in Maine, which held the nation’s first “truth and reconciliation commission,” or TRC, to learn about abuses in the child welfare system against Indigenous children. Young children were ripped from their families and placed in the custody of white people, either as adoptive or foster parents or in boarding schools in an attempt to make them conform to the ideals of a white middle-class society.

The film examined the stories of members of the Wabanaki tribe throughout Maine. The name of the tribe, which the film explained has existed for “13,000 years,” means “People of the Dawn,” which led to the documentary’s name.

About 40 people attended the morning screening, which was cosponsored by the Dedham Public Library, the Dedham Historical Society, the Town of Dedham’s Human Rights Commission, and Cultural Survival, a group that has advocated for the rights of Indigenous peoples since 1972. They also engaged in a discussion after the movie with Elizabeth E. Solomon, a member of the Massachusett Tribe.

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“This is a momentous occasion,” said Gail Coughlin, a researcher of Indigenous cultures who is working on a project exploring the relationships between Native American people in her hometown of Dedham with the earliest English colonizers. Although Dedham has not declared an Indigenous People’s Day, the gathering was a chance to reflect on the impact of trying to westernize a native people.

While the main focus of “Dawnland” was to document the stories told to the TRC, it spanned decades of what at the time was considered to be a social good by the national government. One politician was shown in black-and-white news footage talking about the benefits of the boarding schools and adoption efforts to children to “clean them up,” referring to their “savage ways.” The children greeted him by singing “Ten Little Injuns,” adapted from the song “Ten Little Indians,” which was used in minstrel shows as a form of entertainment.

The first Native American boarding school was established in 186o, according to the American Indian Relief Council’s website.

Some of the scenes in the film were gripping and disturbing. One older Indigenous woman spoke of how she and her had sat in a tub filled with bleach as children “to convince ourselves that we were white.”

As she wept, her tears were captured in tissues placed in a woven basket. Tribe members burned the tissues collected during the TRC testimony to burn in a sacred fire ceremony honoring their ancestors.

As recently as the 1970s, one in four Indigenous children nationwide were living in non-Native American foster homes, according to the film’s website. Some suffered abuse at the hands of their foster parents, while many experienced the sense of living in two separate worlds.

In the film, Joshua Gagnon, 26, described to the TRC how the state removed him from his childhood home at the age of 2 1/2 and placed in the custody of a white family. From there, he bounced from group homes to foster homes, where he was abused.

Another gripping story in the film was recounted by Donna Mae Adams, whose original name was Neptune. She described living in an abusive home in the 1950s, where she was not allowed to acknowledge her Penobscot heritage. When she was older, she attended her first Penobscot ceremony. However, she said she hid because she was embarrassed at not knowing how to dance. This moment captured the fractured feeling of many of the film’s participants of not belonging to either culture fully.

The process of reconciliation sought by the TRC was compared to what occurred after the abolishment of apartheid in South Africa, the film noted.

Another issue highlighted was the Indian Child Welfare Act, a 1978 federal law that set minimum standards for the protection of Indigenous adoptees. It only applies to federally-recognized tribes, of which the Massachusett tribe is not. The process would potentially cost millions of dollars.

“Why should we look for recognition from a government that has tried to destroy us?” Solomon said.

To learn more about ICWA, view this podcast.

While parts of the film were gripping, “Dawnland” also highlighted the resilience of Indigenous peoples in maintaining their customs and heritage. It celebrated the strength of a society where elders look upon all children in the tribe as family members and the interwoven bond between them and all elements of nature.