86 min, 2018, documentary

54 min, 2018, broadcast version

purchase here

A documentary about cultural survival and stolen children: inside the first truth and reconciliation commission for Native Americans. Dawnland aired on Independent Lens in November 2018 and was awarded an Emmy® for outstanding research in 2019.

About the film

“My foster mother told me … she would save me from being Penobscot.”

For most of the 20th century, government agents systematically forced Native American children from their homes and placed them with white families. As recently as the 1970’s, one in four Native children nationwide were living in non-Native foster care, adoptive homes, or boarding schools. Many children experienced devastating emotional and physical harm by adults who mistreated them and tried to erase their cultural identity.

Now, for the first time, they are being asked to share their stories.

In Maine, a historic investigation—the first government-sanctioned truth and reconciliation commission (TRC) in the United States—begins a bold journey. For over two years, Native and non-Native commissioners travel across Maine. They gather testimony and bear witness to the devastating impact of the state’s child welfare practices on families in Maliseet, Micmac, Passamaquoddy and Penobscot tribal communities. Collectively, these tribes make up the Wabanaki people.

The feature-length documentary Dawnland follows the TRC to contemporary Wabanaki communities to witness intimate, sacred moments of truth-telling and healing. With exclusive access to this groundbreaking process and never-before-seen footage, the film reveals the untold narrative of Indigenous child removal in the United States.

The TRC discovers that state power continues to be used to break up Wabanaki families, threatening the very existence of the Wabanaki people. Can they right this wrong and turn around a broken child welfare system? Dawnland foregrounds the immense challenges that this commission faces as they work toward truth, reconciliation, and the survival of all Indigenous peoples.

Living at the easternmost edge of Turtle Island, the Wabanaki people are the first to see the new day’s light. If harmony and justice begin in the east, as some prophesize, surely the TRC is a sign of this beginning.

and the EMMY® goes to…. dawnland!

Dawnland won the Emmy® award for Outstanding Research at the 40th Annual News and Documentary Awards. Dawnland composer Jennifer Kreisberg was also nominated for Outstanding Music at the ceremony hosted by the National Academy of Television Arts and Sciences at Alice Tully Hall at Lincoln Center in New York City on September 24th, 2019.

Dawnland  Co-director Ben Pender-Cudlip at Split Rock in Sipayik, Maine

Dawnland Co-director Ben Pender-Cudlip at Split Rock in Sipayik, Maine

Why This is Important

For most of the 20th century, government agents systematically forced Native American children from their homes and placed them with white families. A 1977 US Senate report (p. 287) found that as recently as the 1975, Native children in Maine were 19 times more likely to be removed by child welfare workers than non-Native children. Many children experienced devastating emotional harm in homes that shamed, demeaned, and erased their culture. 

Americans should know that these atrocities are not history. Native children in Minnesota are still 14 times more likely to enter foster care than non-Native children; other states are not much better. Many Native people describe this persistent child welfare crisis as ongoing genocide resulting in cultural, emotional, and financial devastation—a stark contrast to most outsiders who are ignorant, misinformed or unaware of these abuses.

In fact in 2015, we created the short film First Light (that you can watch online now) to begin engaging with students and teachers about what’s happening in Maine.


Maine-Wabanaki REACH is featured in Dawnland. The organization advances Wabanaki self-determination by strengthening the cultural, spiritual and physical well-being of Native people in Maine. REACH initiated the Maine Wabanaki-State Child Welfare Truth and Reconciliation Commission and is carrying out its recommendations currently. The filmmakers encourage you to support REACH by making a donation via the REACH website.


The Compelling Question of the Dawnland Teacher’s Guide is: What is the Relationship Between the Taking of the Land and the Taking of the Children?

This question frames the study across 12 lessons and will help students collect and organize evidence to support an argument that answers the question. The guide is freely available as an online resource.

Producer Bruce Duthu, professor of Native Studies at Dartmouth, explains the importance of the TRC (1:46)


Directors Adam Mazo, Ben Pender-Cudlip
Producers Adam Mazo, N. Bruce Duthu, J.D. (Houma)
Executive Producers Heather Rae (Cherokee), Beth Murphy, Shirley K. Sneve
Director of Photography Ben Pender-Cudlip
Editor Kristen Salerno
Composer Jennifer Kreisberg (Tuscarora)
Learning Director Mishy Lesser, Ed.D.
Impact Producer Tracy Rector (Choctaw/Seminole)
Senior Advisor Chris Newell (Passamaquoddy)



  • Chico Colvard, University of Massachusetts Boston adjunct lecturer, documentary filmmaker (A Family Affair)

  • Donna Hicks, Ph.D., associate at the Weatherhead Center for International Affairs at Harvard University, author of Dignity

  • Dave Joseph, LICSW, senior vice president for program, Public Conversations Project

  • Robert Koenig, film director (Returned), producer, writer, and editor

  • Rebecca Lowenhaupt, Ph.D., assistant professor for educational leadership and higher education at Boston College

  • Dick Olsen, strategic planner and fundraising consultant for major non-profits

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