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Dennis Perkins

Dennis Perkins is a freelance writer who lives in Auburn with his lovely wife, the writer Emily L. Stephens, and their cat, Cooper. When not watching all the movies ever made or digging up stories about the Maine film scene, he can be found writing for the AV Club and elsewhere. The rest of the time, he's worrying about the Red Sox.

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Posted: October 1, 2018

‘Dawnland’ goes deeper into the plight of Maine’s Native people

Written by: Dennis Perkins

Georginia Sappier-Richardson shares her story during a visit of the Maine Wabanaki-State Child Welfare Truth and Reconciliation Commission.
Photos by Ben Pender-Cudlip/Courtesy of Upstander Project

Featured in this column back in 2016, director Adam Mazo’s short documentary “First Light” examined the 2012 establishment of the Maine Wabanaki-State Child Welfare Truth and Reconciliation Commission (hereafter abbreviated TRC), the groundbreaking agreement between state government and Maine’s Native tribes. Intended to expose – and thereby change – Maine’s long history of removing Native children from their homes (which occurred some five times more often than from white families), the film showed how the TRC allowed Native Mainers, who’ve had their lives irrevocably changed by racist policy and governmental indifference, to tell their powerful, often wrenching stories.

Now Mazo (alongside co-director Ben Pender-Cudlip) is returning to Maine with “Dawnland,” a feature-length follow-up documentary, screening this weekend (Friday through Monday) at PMA Films. Delving deeper into the ongoing mission of the TRC to bring Maine’s shameful past to light when it comes to the treatment of Native communities, the film gives a voice to those still dealing with the trauma inflicted by policies that ignored Native culture in destroying families and working to find a better, more just way forward.

“Native people are usually invisible in this country and in the state of Maine,” explained Denise Altvater, coordinator of the Wabanaki Youth Program in Maine, a member of the Wabanaki people and one of the film’s subjects. “We don’t want to talk about what was done to Native people because it happened in this country. In other countries, we throw money at problems because we don’t feel guilt about those things, we didn’t create them. That’s not an easy thing to deal with, and we were worried the state would not agree (to the TRC) because of that.”

A screen shot from “Dawnland” showing a father and child on Indian Island.

Having worked since 2000 in efforts to represent Native issues in Maine, Altvater was instrumental in getting the TRC proposal to Gov. Paul LePage, a prospect, she said, that seemed daunting, considering LePage’s history of making racist statements. But, Altvater said, LePage’s response was surprising, even encouraging, concerning the future of state-tribal relations. “This is right when LePage had already called African Americans ‘a special interest group,’ among other statements like that, so I thought, ‘There’s no way he goes for this.’ But we met, and I told him my story, and, perhaps because of his experiences when he was younger, both with an abusive father and in dealing with Native people in Canada, he was receptive and signed the declaration that day.”

Altvater’s own story is both harrowing and all too typical for Native people in Maine. One of seven sisters born to a single mother, Altvater recounts the day when her mother – forced to trek for miles due to other discriminatory policies concerning food assistance – came back from buying food to find that all of her children were simply gone. “She had to get vouchers in one place and then go shopping elsewhere. We had no car. Someone called the state and said she’d abandoned us. They came in two station wagons, loaded us in with our belongings stuffed in garbage bags, never told us what was happening. We didn’t see our mother again for five years.” Altvater, who, along with her sisters, was subjected to years of abuse she describes as torture in the foster system into which they were placed, explained, “When I say ‘The trauma is in the taking,’ that’s what I mean.”

Watch the trailer:

“Dawnland” traces the birth of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission – the first ever such state-sanctioned commission in the nation – and how its work in allowing Maine’s Native people to tell their stories has affected how Maine approaches Native communities. It also seeks to show how those families have been damaged by decades of what the filmmakers describe as the perpetuation of white supremacy in the destruction of Native culture. Still, for Altvater and other Maine Native people profiled in the film, inviting the filmmakers into the process was a difficult decision. “We vetted them pretty well,” she said. “People have come to our communities for centuries researching us, and there’s always that kind of hesitation that you don’t know what their intentions really are. Plus, the stories are so personal, we were worried that having them there would deter people from coming forward. But, in the end, we gave them full and total access, knowing we’d have no control over the final film, the editing, what they’d put into it.”

Citing the TRC’s work in training child welfare personnel, raising awareness about the way child welfare policies have been unequally applied and giving those harmed in the past the voice they have been so long denied, Altvater said that things are changing, albeit not fast enough. “In our communities, the most important thing has been the healing that comes with having a voice that people are not only going to hear, but that they’re going to believe. To say, ‘This is what happened to me and I’m doing this to make sure it’s not happening again.’ But, to this day, it’s still happening. We want to say that children don’t have to go through this.”

“Dawnland” screens from Friday to Monday, Oct. 8, at the Portland Museum of Art’s PMA Films. After the 2 p.m. screening on Sunday, Denise Altvater and co-director Adam Mazo with lead a panel discussion on the film. For more information, check out the PMA website, portlandmuseum.org/movies/dawnland.


COMING TO LOCAL SCREENS

Railroad Square Cinema
Friday: Railroad Square’s 40th Anniversary! Come celebrate four decades of Railroad Square’s commitment to cinematic excellence with screenings of the first two movies ever shown at the Waterville institution, back in 1978. At 4 p.m., catch Lina Wertmüller’s still-controversial black comedy “Seven Beauties,” followed by a 7 p.m. showing of “Casablanca.” Plus, there will be a 6:30 p.m. rough cut screening of director Michael McDade’s in-progress documentary about Railroad Square itself.

Nickelodeon Cinema
Starting Friday: “Bel Canto.” The always-great Julianne Moore stars alongside international superstar Ken Watanabe (“Inception”) in this hostage drama about an American opera singer and a Japanese tycoon falling in love during the revolutionary takeover of a South American embassy. Based on the novel by Ann Patchett.

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