First Light, the new independent documentary film that explores the historic Maine Wabanaki-State Child Welfare Truth & Reconciliation Commission (TRC), is making its world debut today on Indian Country Today Media Network. According to the film’s directors, Adam Mazo and Ben Pender-Cudlip, the short documentary film examines the historic collaboration between the five Wabanaki tribes and the state of Maine in response to the past abuses within the state’s child welfare system.
The first of its kind in U.S. History, the Maine TRC was established in 2012 in an agreement between Governor Paul LePage and chiefs from the Houlton Band of Maliseet Indians, the Aroostook Band of Micmac Indians, the Penobscot Indian Nation, and the Passamaquoddy at Sipayik and Indian Township. According to the state-tribal Mandate, the commission’s objective was threefold: To uncover and acknowledge the truth; create opportunities to heal and learn; and to collaborate in creating best practices for Wabanaki children within their respective communities.
“We think it’s important to release First Light on Indigenous Peoples’ Day to shift the spotlight from Christopher Columbus, a chief architect of colonial violence, to the more than five million indigenous and Native American people living in the United States today and current critical issues: Tribal sovereignty, sacredness of children, land and tradition,” said Adam Mazo, one of the film’s co-directors.
First Light is the debut film in a series, which will be followed by the full-length feature documentary Dawnland slated for release in early 2017. The series will shine a spotlight on the crisis that led to the creation of the commission. First Light tells a piece of the story of the commission and its origins. Dawnland will bring viewers inside the workings and process of the commission, and share testimony both from those who suffered under the child welfare system and those who upheld its policies and mission.
The commission had 27 months to discover the truth about what happened to Wabanaki families in the state’s child welfare system. During filming, Mazo and Pender-Cudlip were allowed unprecedented access by the commission and by tribal consent to follow the TRC which they filmed over two years, gathering over 400 hours of material. The film transports viewers to contemporary tribal communities and through intimate, poignant testimony, revealing the individual human impact of disturbing statistics: by 1978, 1 in 4 Native American children were living apart from their families.
The Commission completed its work in June 2015, concluding that the state of Maine has been, and continues to be, engaged in “cultural genocide” against the Wabanaki people. But the response by the state of Maine and Wabanaki Confederacy stands out as a unique model for other tribes and states to follow. Today, the filmmaker’s note, the statistics for Indian children remain grim across the country. For example, according to data released in June, tribal children across the United States are removed from their families and tribes at nearly three times the rate as other children.
The film series is being produced by the Upstander Project, a Boston-based organization dedicated to creating compelling documentary films and learning resources around genocide and human rights education. The organization seeks to raise awareness of the perils of indifference to injustice and the need for awareness, especially among middle- and high-school educators who are uniquely positioned to impact students during their formative years.
Dr. Mishy Lesser, Learning Director for the Upstander Project, has created free learning resources designed for middle and high school educators to go with the film in the hope that it can be incorporated into social studies curricula around the country.
“We chose to make First Light and its learning resources freely available because the contemporary story of Native peoples is largely unexamined [in school districts],” says Lesser. “We believe these stories of both suffering and resiliency should be studied widely so that each of us has an opportunity to better understand our country’s history and discover how bystanders have chosen to become upstanders by speaking out against injustice.”
Lesser is also a director of the Upstander Academy Learning Laboratory at the Thomas J. Dodd Research Center at the University of Connecticut. She hopes to continue refining the learning resources in collaboration with teaching organizations and collegiate teaching programs around the country.
“We will be testing an assortment of online learning resources and teaching activities with teachers and students to see which ones are most engaging and effective,” says Lesser. “Over time, we hope to track how these resources and activities improve students' content knowledge, develop their upstander skills, and change their attitudes.”
For the entire production team, the tribes, the state, and the tribal members featured in the film, the driving force in making First Light was the urgency and necessity in telling the story of a people who have suffered in unspeakable ways—and yet persevere in seeking solutions for the youngest and most vulnerable among them.
“As filmmakers, we feel an obligation to tell this story with care, empathy, and accuracy. This commission marks the first effort from both state and tribes to engage in a conversation about the trauma inflicted upon Native people in America through child welfare practices. During our process of observation, it became incredibly clear to us how present and immediate these issues are for many Wabanaki people—and how invisible this pain is for many of us with little everyday exposure to Native people and culture,” says Pender-Cudlip. “We think it is important to create a film that can impact audiences who may be indifferent to the separation of children from Native tribes. We hope that that First Light helps viewers consider how they would feel if their culture was seen as ‘less than,’ and in need of correction or assimilation. Without children to pass traditions along to, any culture ceases to exist—and we believe that people in this country want to celebrate diversity and keep unique cultures alive.”