Before there was Dawnland, the eye-opening and timely new film premiering November 5 on Independent Lens, there was First Light, a shorter version of the same story about the forced separation of Native American children that helped lead to the trust necessary to tell the expanded story of Dawnland. Those two films by Boston-based director Adam Mazo, along with his short Coexist, form the basis for his Upstander Project, which uses documentary film to address injustice and spotlight upstanding citizens.

Dawnland was called “riveting” in the Boston Globe, “an uncomfortable cinematic history lesson.” This never-before-told story of the Wabanaki people reveals the stakes of family separation policy are nothing short of cultural survival.

Adam, with Dawnland co-director Ben Pender-Cudlip, where noted, spoke to us about the impetus for making such a wrenching, but ultimately hopeful, film, including how the filmmakers slowly ingratiated themselves into the communities in Maine where the film is set.

Why did you make Dawnland?

I grew up learning about “Tikkun Olam,” a Jewish idea that each of us bears responsibility for improving our community and society. Sharing the historic and compelling journey of the Maine-Wabanaki Truth & Reconciliation Commission [TRC] seems like an essential aspect of their vital work. I am humbled to have the opportunity to be able to do so through the filming of Dawnland.

I have engaged with the reality that there is a brokenness in the land we now call the United States. I believe this is because of our continued failure to honestly acknowledge that European colonists perpetrated genocide against Indigenous peoples with the explicit mission of stealing the land. Working for decolonization is a way that I can try to practice Tikkun Olam. Together we can begin to heal this massive wound. To do this I can try to stop the continued seizure of Native lands, support local farmers, reduce consumption and waste, learn my local history and know and acknowledge publicly whose land I am on at all film screenings and Upstander Project workshops.

Dawnland co-directors Ben Pender-Cudlip (left) and Adam Mazo (right)
Dawnland co-directors Ben Pender-Cudlip (left) and Adam Mazo (right)

What were some of the biggest challenges you faced and what did you learn in making Dawnland?

Without a doubt our biggest challenge has been trying to move beyond our colonized education and minds. We have learned so much about humility and humor from our friends in Wabanaki communities (that is, the Maliseet, Micmac, Penobscot, and Passamaquoddy tribes). Making Dawnland has been an education in how present realities for Native peoples are directly tied to the history of genocide in New England and the deeply entrenched foundational myths of the United States.

“[T]hey were justifiably slow to trust us. We look like so many others who have come before us (anthropologists, filmmakers, missionaries) and only taken from Native communities while giving nothing back.”From Europeans’ first contact with Indigenous peoples to now, people like us have benefited from our collective horrific mistreatment of Native peoples including killing, raping, forcibly relocating, imprisoning, sterilizing, and trampling on their right to self-determination and autonomy. We have learned we can and should draw a through-line from scalp proclamations (like the Phips Proclamation issued in Boston in 1755), to federally funded boarding schools for Native children that can rightfully be called labor camps, to failed social experiments forcing Native children into white families (Indian Adoption Project), to policies and practices of forced assimilation in child welfare systems which continue to deeply influence current dominant culture perceptions and current realities for Native families.

A story like this requires sensitivity with the people who are talking to you about this painful past. How did you gain everyone’s trust?

We (Adam and Ben) were the two-person production team and we are both Euro-Americans. While the majority of our key creative colleagues are Native (Heather Rae, Tracy Rector, N. Bruce Duthu, Jennifer Kreisberg, and Chris Newell), we were the face of the production in Wabanaki communities, where they were justifiably slow to trust us. We look like so many others who have come before us (anthropologists, filmmakers, missionaries) and only taken from Native communities while giving nothing back.

We believe we successfully built trust through an oft-repeated process of introducing ourselves and expressing our honest intentions with the film. Making and sharing a prequel to Dawnland, First Light, also served Wabanaki communities and our trust-building process by showing how we would tell this story and offering the short as a tool for teaching non-Native people about the TRC and the work of Maine-Wabanaki REACH.

Commissioner and co-chairperson gkisedtanamoogk
Commissioner and co-chairperson gkisedtanamoogk

What is one scene in Dawnland that you’d chose to encapsulate the film and the Wabanaki people?

Native people are often historicized in film. Often drumming and dancing are used as a form of cinematic shorthand.

In our film there is a scene where gkisedtanamoogk, one of the TRC commissioners, talks about culture; he describes it as “a way for us to understand how we are, where we are, why we are.” As he speaks, we show images of Wabanaki people today, all across Maine, going about their daily lives: fishing for eel in the Penobscot River, splitting ash for baskets, hunting moose, and beading.

“This history of Indigenous child removal the United States has practiced for centuries.”The scene is very simple from a technical standpoint, but we intend for it to contribute to a more contemporary, detailed representation of Wabanaki people. We wanted to use our lens to show that Micmac, Maliseet, Passamaquoddy, and Penobscot people live and thrive, today, upon this land.

What do you hope people take away from Dawnland most of all after watching it?

We hope non-Native viewers will walk away feeling stirred by the courage of Wabanaki people telling the truth, feel indignant they have not been taught about the unique atrocity of taking a child away from her family and culture, and this history of Indigenous child removal that the United States has practiced for centuries. We hope they will harness this wake-up call into action to honor and acknowledge Native peoples and their land. We hope they will choose to support Maine-Wabanaki REACH in their efforts to carry out the recommendations of the TRC.

We hope Wabanaki and other Indigenous viewers will feel their stories are being told. We hope they will see themselves in the people on screen and feel represented, heard, and honored.

One difficult but important experience occurred when we screened a rough cut of the film for the TRC and key people in the film. After the screening, people in the room were clearly upset. They gave us serious and valid criticism about how the film presented white guilt and privilege, and how much screen time was allotted for white film participants. This was an uncomfortable conversation, and we tried our best to listen deeply to the feedback.

We came to realize the ways we were wrong, internalized them, and made course corrections. The film came out much stronger thanks to this input. This experience pushed us to grow, to try to be better allies, and to take a deeper look at our own privilege as white men in a predominantly white and male industry.

Denise Altvater (Passamaquoddy), a leader in the effort to create the TRC
Denise Altvater (Passamaquoddy), a leader in the effort to create the TRC

What documentaries or feature films most influenced your own work?

Ben: I have a deep respect for Joshua Oppenheimer’s pair of films, The Act of Killing (2012) and The Look of Silence (2014). They approach the Indonesian genocide of 1965-1966 from two different angles. In the first, Oppenheimer allows the perpetrators—who were never brought to justice, and indeed hold positions of power—to act out their fantasies in scenes for an imaginary film. It is a traumatic, important, relevant piece of filmmaking.

The second film is a companion piece of sorts, and I find the ethics of its production particularly notable. In The Look of Silence Oppenheimer collaborates with Adi Rukun, a man whose brother was murdered by the death squads. On camera, Rukun confronts these killers face to face. He literally risks his life to meet with these men, and it is worth reading about how the film team prepared for these confrontations. Oppenhemier speaks about leaving cars idling for a quick getaway if necessary, and having Rukun’s family at the airport ready to board a flight at a moment’s notice.

These films deserve to be watched, this genocide must be acknowledged, and its perpetrators held accountable.

Adam: Reel Injun (2009) was an important education for me in the canon of stereotyping of Native people in film, as interpreted by leading Native filmmakers and advocates. More recently Did You Wonder Who Fired the Gun (2017) stirred me deeply in a real visceral cinematic experience. Travis Wilkerson masterfully interrogates his own whiteness and privilege as a filmmaker as he explores how his great-grandfather got away with murdering a Black man.

What film/project(s) are you working on next?

Ben: Outside of the Dawnland universe, my next project is about Bob Schuler, an artist who spent the last 30 years of his life burying his work at the bottom of the sea to ensure that it would survive for millions of years. I’m interested in how this project relates to the idea of “deep time,” and makes us consider our responsibility for future generations. I’m sharing photos of his work and fragments from the Schuler’s notebooks at Tethys_Project on Instagram.

Adam: We’re looking forward to finishing a couple of short films born out of Dawnland. One focuses on a Passamaquoddy grandmother going on a mission for forgiveness. Another will feature Penobscot parents and their children celebrating their survival by reading and reacting to the bounty proclamation that promised huge sums of money for colonial settlers to scalp and murder their ancestors. We will be sure to share these films via and social media (@DawnlandMovie).

Further Reading

Read the complete findings of the Maine Wabanaki-State Child Welfare Truth & Reconciliation Commission which are well worth reading.