BANGOR, Maine – She was a 4-year-old kid named Dawn Neptune, who lived not far from here in a place called Indian Island, a reservation of the Penobscot Nation, a cultural touchstone that shaped — still shapes — who she is.
Her mother, then still a teenager, drank too much in those early days. It was an open family secret, part of an intergenerational trauma that, like her Penobscot heritage, was a critical and governing rhythm to her young life.
And then Dawn Neptune was gone. A baby sitter took her and a younger brother to a grocery store a half-hour away from the reservation. And then abruptly drove away, a cruel abandonment that served as the little girl’s entry into life in foster care, where she promptly learned a hard lesson no kid should be forced to absorb: Forget about your mom. Forget about Indian Island. Forget about being Penobscot.
And then one day she spoke briefly in her native tongue and suffered swift-and-ugly punishment she has never — can never — forget.
“It made my foster mother rage,’’ Dawn Neptune Adams, now 43, told me the other day, sitting at her sun-dappled kitchen table here. “There was absolute rage in her eyes. All of a sudden, she was pulling me into the bathroom.
“And she took my toothbrush out of the toothbrush holder and rubbed on the soap. Then she brushed my teeth with it — my teeth and my mouth. It was very painful. When she took the toothbrush out of my mouth, bristles that had been standing up were now sideways. I heard her bragging about it later. She said she washed it out of my mouth.’’
Much later, when she was allowed to rinse her mouth, the sink ran red with her blood.
That type of punishment — and so much more — is an example of the “cultural genocide” that the Maine Wabanaki-State Child Welfare Truth & Reconciliation Commission would detail in 2015.
That commission concluded that since the dawn of the 21st century, native children like Dawn Neptune were 5.1 times more likely to live in foster care than non-native children — a practice that dates to the boarding schools of the late 1800s. A practice that perpetuated this monstrous mandate: “Kill the Indian, and save the man.’’
“Any time I heard my foster mother talking about Penobscot people, they were dirty,’’ Adams told me. “They were alcoholics. They were stupid. She really hated my birth mother. All the kids who were put into non-native foster care were not allowed to practice their culture or were told to be ashamed of their culture. And that echoes through time.’’
It also echoes through a riveting new documentary film, “Dawnland,’’ which makes its East Coast premiere on April 28 at Independent Film Festival Boston at the Somerville Theatre.
It’s an 86-minute journey of raw and recent history told through the eyes of those who have lived through it. Who have survived it. Who are determined to bear unstinting witness to it.
For people like me, who grew up in an almost all-white small Worcester County town, it’s an uncomfortable cinematic history lesson, a window into a world whose legacy stretches into the late 1800s and even earlier than that, when misplaced benevolence of white men led to efforts to “Americanize’’ Native Americans.
Boarding schools sought to systematically strip away tribal cultures. Native language was forbidden. Native names were banned. Long hair was cut. “Savages’’ were being “civilized.’’
‘They tried to kill the Penobscot part of us.’ Dawn Neptune
“It was the white man’s burden to bring these ‘savages’ into the light and promote assimilation,’’ said N. Bruce Duthu, a professor in the Native American Studies program at Dartmouth College, and a coproducer of the documentary.
“They saw the whole notion of living on communal lands and adhering to traditional ways as an albatross for people who needed to be liberated,’’ said Duthu, a member of the United Houma Nation of Louisiana.
The film’s coproducer and codirector is Adam Mazo, who lives now in Jamaica Plain with his wife and son, and who first learned of the Truth & Reconciliation Commission’s remarkable work through the speakers of his car’s radio. The NPR report riveted him.
“I wasn’t taught that Native American children are still three times more likely to go into foster care than non-native children,’’ Mazo told me. “In the 1970s, Native American children in Maine were 17 times more likely to go in to foster care than non-native children.’’
The native welfare system’s policies can be traced, he said, to the federal boarding school program under which kids were shipped hundreds of miles from their families. “These kids were essentially kidnapped by the United States government and sent to these boarding schools,’’ he said.
Mazo said the making of the documentary was transformative for him, a guy raised in Minnesota and who studied journalism in Florida before coming to Boston as a producer for WHDH-TV.
“I have a completely different understanding of who I am as a Euro-American man,’’ he said. “I follow in the footsteps of colonists who did everything they could to extract things from native people, including murder and genocide. I had the great honor of being in the room for some of this testimony as it was being given to the Truth Commission.’’
That testimony is emotional, tear-provoking, and grist for introspection. White privilege is confronted directly. At one point, the camera documents a meeting at which Native Americans ask the whites present to retire to the basement. Turns out this reconciliation business is delicate and difficult-to-achieve terrain.
“I think what we’re starting to realize now is that you don’t take 500 years of mistrust and wash it away with one commission,’’ Matthew Dunlap, Maine’s secretary of state and a commission member, tells the documentarians.
“When you forbid people from speaking their language, you take their children away and put them in totally different cultural settings, what are you really doing?’’ Dunlap asks in the film. “What else do you call it beside cultural genocide?’’
That’s what Dawn Neptune Adams calls it, too. She agrees with the commission’s findings that genocide “continues to occur in a cultural form.”
She has fought against it since the time she was 18 and allowed to leave foster care and chart her own non-linear course.
She begins to softly cry as she recalls her first pow-wow, a large conference of Native Americans from the United States and Canada.
“There was an elderly man in a circle of people dancing and he went like this to me,’’ she said, making a beckoning gesture. “And I couldn’t. I didn’t know how to dance. And I didn’t want anybody to see that. It was embarrassing. It’s still embarrassing.’’
Adams’s road to recover her culture, to recover herself, would not always be accompanied by soaring music of cinematic success. She was staggered by drug addiction. She learned to make jewelry in California. She was aimless, struggling to find her true north.
Then she quit drugs. Got a college degree. At age 35, she became a single mom, surviving without child support.
“They tried to kill the Penobscot part of us,’’ she said, recalling the days when she was beaten with a hair brush, or a fly swatter, or a spatula.
It didn’t work.
As we spoke, her 9-year-old daughter was napping upstairs. Her name is Wolipan. It’s a Penobscot name.
It means “a beautiful dawn.’’