Dawnland

Feature documentary in POST-Production, 2018

A documentary about cultural survival and stolen children: inside the first truth and reconciliation commission for Native Americans.

About the film

When most people hear about children ripped from their families, they think of faraway places or of centuries past. The reality is it's been happening in the U.S. for centuries—and is still happening today. Native American children are more than twice as likely as non-Native children to be taken from their families and put into foster care, according to a 2013 study.

In Maine, a group of Native and non-Native leaders came together to acknowledge and address the abuses suffered by Native children in the hands of the child welfare system. Thanks to their commitment, the Maine Wabanaki-State Child Welfare Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) was formed in 2012 to seek the truth and bring healing to those affected.

Dawnland is the only feature-length documentary to tell the inside story of this historic, first of its kind commission and the individuals—both Native and non-Native—who boldly and publicly came forward to share their stories of survival, guilt and loss, in order to illuminate the ongoing crisis of indigenous child removal.

The film follows key participants through the truth and reconciliation process: a survivor of foster care, a child welfare worker, a TRC commissioner, and the co-founder of the commission. Their intersecting journeys reveal buried trauma and intergroup disagreements that threaten to derail the whole process. Dawnland also provides essential historical context showing how these present-day conflicts are the result of 500 years of colonial domination of Native peoples.

Co-director Ben at Split Rock in Sipayik, Maine

Co-director Ben 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, we’ve already 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.

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

FILMMAKING Team

Directors Adam Mazo, Ben Pender-Cudlip
Producers Adam Mazo, N. Bruce Duthu, J.D.
Executive Producers Heather Rae, Beth Murphy
Director of Photography Ben Pender-Cudlip
Editor Kristen Salerno
Composer Jennifer Kreisberg
Learning Director Mishy Lesser, Ed.D.
Impact Producer Tracy Rector
Impact Fellow Ruth Garby Torres
Senior Advisor Chris Newell

CONSULTANTS

ADVISORS

  • 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

Supporters and Partners