With Supreme Court Battle Over Native American Rights Looming, New Documentary Focuses on Removals of Native Children in Maine

While a court battle over a law meant to keep Native American families from being separated seems destined for the U.S. Supreme Court, a new documentary clearly depicts the horrific circumstances that often arise when states decide to remove Native children from their families.

“If, through our film, people see that [the removal of Native children] is a problem then that’s a success,” said the film’s co-director Adam Mazo.

Dawnland opens in a 1974 Senate hearing in which Native American women and children explain how they were separated by child welfare workers. A pig-tailed and bespectacled girl named Anna begins to cry as she leans forward to speak into a microphone, describing how her brother was abused in their foster home.

As she speaks, Sen. Jim Abourezk (D-S.D.) – who would go on to become the lead sponsor of the 1978 Indian Child Welfare Act, or ICWA, which was invalidated by a federal district court judge in Texas last month – tells Anna she doesn’t have to talk about it if doing so upsets her.

Anna Townsend, 9, of Fallon, Nevada, testifying on April 8, 1974 at the Subcommittee on Indian Affairs of the U.S. Senate. Photo courtesy: NBCUniversal

The documentary then cuts to the stark Maine landscape in the winter of 2012, when a film crew led by directors Mazo and Ben Pender-Cudlip began shooting some 450 hours of footage of the Maine Wabanaki-State Child Welfare Truth and Reconciliation Commission. [Wabanaki means “people of the dawn.”] The commission’s mandate was to investigate and compare child welfare practices as they were applied to Indian families from 1978 – when ICWA became law – to 2012.

The film includes haunting black and white scenes from the 1920s and 30s, showing dozens of Native children singing “one little, two little, three little Indians” while sporting the identical Western bowl haircuts popular at the time.

Many Native children from Maine were sent to so-called “Indian boarding schools” in the 1900s. Overall, thousands of Native children were scattered across the country to 25 such schools, far from their families and some as young as 4 years old.

Navajo children, June 19, 1929. Photo courtesy: University of South Carolina

By the 1970s, the Association of American Indian Affairs, a policy and advocacy organization, had determined that 25 to 35 percent of all Native children were being removed from their families and tribes, leading to the later hearing featured in the opening of the film. These efforts culminated in the passage of the Indian Child Welfare Act aimed to prevent Native children from being taken from their families and tribes. It also established tribes as the legal entities responsible for the well-being of Native children, similar to the way states are responsible for the wellbeing of non-Native children.

On Oct. 4, 2018, U.S. District Court Judge Reed O’Connor ruled that ICWA is a race-based law that requires states to carry out federal mandates, both of which he said are unconstitutional. The decision will be appealed, according to statements issued by Cherokee Nation and other tribes, but in the meantime, the three states involved in the case – Texas, Louisiana and Indiana – may opt to disregard ICWA.

Throughout the past 40 years, compliance with ICWA had been spotty across the country. In Maine, the Truth and Reconciliation Commission was tasked with the difficult work of creating space to allow Maine’s families and individuals to share their child welfare stories, to capture those stories, and to have the trauma and loss of family and culture recognized in a formal way by both the U.S. government and fellow tribal citizens. The commission collected statements and testimony from more than 200 people over three years, including Wabanaki citizens, social workers and other child welfare professionals. Its final report was published in 2015.

Dawnland follows the commission through its process and doesn’t hide the fact that, at times, the commission and the film crew were perceived as outsiders, discouraging some Wabanaki community members from participating in the commission’s events.

“I genuinely believe this is the most important thing the state has ever done,” said Heather Martin, executive director of the commission, in the film.

Dawnland airs nationally on public television on Nov. 5, just a few days before the 40th anniversary of the signing of ICWA.

Guides for both viewers and teachers are available for download.

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