‘Dawnland’ shows a crucial part of Native American history

by Maria Hidalgo | 10/23/18 2:00am

“You can’t heal someone who has gone through hell,” says Georgianna, a Wabanaki woman who is also the face of the documentary “Dawnland,” presented in the Loew Auditorium in the Black Family Visual Arts Center this past Friday. This quote may be the best way to describe the experiences that were brought to light in this moving documentary, directed by Adam Mazo and Ben Pender-Cudlip.

The film explores the first Truth and Reconciliation Commission in the United States, which exposed various nationwide accounts of forceful separation of Native American children from their families and communities by the government. “Dawnland” provides the audience a glimpse of how the process of separation and the process of reconciliation worked, the dynamics of different identities within the commission and the pressures that each group faced. The film also provided an insightful view of the grief and healing felt by the Wabanaki community, based in Maine.

At the screening of the film, the Loew Auditorium was filled to the brim with members of the Dartmouth and the local community. Before the presentation of the movie, Duthu started his introductory speech by thanking the Wabanaki people, and then stressed that this documentary is not one that should necessarily be “enjoyed,” but rather one that should “stimulate the reflection and concern” from everyone in the community.

Once the film concluded, the audience remained silent due to the impactful and shocking events that they had just witnessed before all the audience eventually came together for a resounding applause.

During the question and answer session that followed the screening, director Adam Mazo and Native American studies professor N. Bruce Duthu ’80 were joined by Esther Anne, the director of REACH, an organization that created the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. Members of the community asked questions about varying topics such as the true intentions of politicians who were part of the commission and about the current state of one of the Native American children documented in the film. In response to an inquiry about how to teach young students to be better allies to the Native American community, Mazo, Duthu and Jane recommended referring to the Teacher’s Guide and other useful resources and information on the official website for the film.

Duthu, who also co-produced the documentary, was contacted by the film directors four years ago to be a consultant for the film. Duthus said that his extensive knowledge of the forced separation of Native American children by the government helped him become a key figure in helping “put into context what was happening in the State of Maine” compared to what was happening nationally. After his journey in this film started, he was approached by the directors of the film to become a producer, Duthu said. The rest is history.

Once Duthu became a producer, he said he was “[put] in touch with people within the network of filmmakers, educators, scholars, community people and funders.” This way, he was able to bring a significant contribution to the film, such as when he secured a grant from the Kellogg Foundation needed to finish the film.

As one of the main figures in control of the direction of the film, Duthu said he also oversaw “how to tell this story, because there were so many layers of sensitivity around people personal stories and the way the process was unfolding,” along with the directors and his co-producer.

In addition, the producers and directors wanted the Native American people who came forward with their personal experiences to feel at home and heard.

According to Duthu,“they [came] to these strangers and [told] their stories” while being recorded; the survivors were sharing their most personal and life-changing moments of “their experiences growing up as children and being removed from their family.”

As a result, Duthu said the production was an “emotional” process because they were compiling heart-wrenching information to tell a compelling story.

One of the main goals that Duthu wants to achieve with the film is for the government “to look at their own practices in different states around the country and to what extent they are respecting the interests of tribal nations’ children in order to comply with federal law.” He added that the other audience he wants to reach is “the citizenry of the United States” because he was shocked to see how little many Americans knew about the United States’ history and the treatment of Native people.

In terms of how he could impact the immediate Dartmouth community, Duthu said he wants to create a “sense of belonging between an indigenous child and his or her tribal nation, because without their ability to connect with their native people, that child can, and will, grow up ... with a sense of something missing.”

Duthu added that children are essential for continuing tribal legacy and continued existence. “Without no children there are no tribal nations,” he said.

Amid the members of the audience was Eva Legge ’22, for whom this documentary had great emotional significance.

For Legge, “Dawnland” was a “touching” movie due to her “personal experience in the subject matter.” Legge said that she had immediate family members who were personally affected by similar policies of forced removals by the Canadian government, making the film particularly resonant for her.

One of the most striking aspects of the documentary for Legge was “the internal conflict between the groups” within the Commission, which highlighted that sometimes the best interest of the tribe in question was not the main focus for them. Legge added that the most heartbreaking scene for her was when “the older woman at the beginning of the film” shared her experience about being sexually and emotionally abused by her foster father.

Legge said that “given Dartmouth’s history with Native Americans, it is very important for the student body to be educated on the subject matter,” so the Dartmouth community can learn from “Dawnland.” Through the film, the College can appreciate how far we, as an institution, have advanced in our inclusion of Native Americans while also learning how to become better allies of those communities, Legge said.

Josephine Nguyen ’22, an international student, said that the film was “very eye-opening.”

Nguyen said she chose to attend the screening to learn more about Native American history and the “status of the Native American community today” because she “was not taught about Native American history before.”

Nguyen was particularly impacted by the scene that depicted the experiences of a mother who, upon finding her children, realized that her children didn’t recognize their parents anymore.

“It is extremely heart breaking for children not to even recognize who their mother is,” Nguyen said.

Nguyen added that she believes that films like “Dawnland” “should not just be shown to students in America. This should be added to international curriculums because it is something that does not have as much international awareness as it really should.”

Correction appended (Oct. 24, 2018): This article has been updated with the correct spelling of director Adam Mazo's surname.