Wednesday, February 20th, 2019

First Light: A discussion of Native Tribes

Posted on November 08, 2017 in Arts & Culture
By USM Free Press

Sam Margolin

“The trees and stone bore witness to their suffering and for generations as they have stood in solemn prayer. Generations of grief and hope rooted deeply in this land that I think I own. There are voices, which have been silenced, and they are dying to be heard. I can only stop talking and quiet my busy mind, break open my heart to all I don’t know.”

– From a poem by Penthea Burns, Maine Wabanaki REACH Co-Director.

The University of Southern Maine and Portland Friends Meeting co-hosted a film screening and panel discussion Thursday evening as part of the Gloria S. Duclos convocation series. In celebration of Native American Awareness month, the Maine Wabanaki-State Child Welfare Truth & Reconciliation Commission was invited to screen the new short film First Light and discuss some of the issues facing the Wabanaki tribes and other native tribes like them. Speaking at the convocation were the film’s director, Adam Mazo, Director of the Upstander Project, Dr. Mishy Lesser, as well as two women from the Maine Wabanaki REACH program.

The Upstander Project is an organization that makes original documentaries that challenge indifference to injustice by raising awareness of it, especially  among teachers and  students. Their focus is contributing to action-oriented campaigns in response to vital social issues. First Light is a 13-minute film that is a prequel to a full-length film called Dawnland. Both films document the time between 1879 and 1981 in which the United States government took Native American children away from their tribes, devastating parents and denying children their traditions and identity in an attempt to assimilate the native culture into white America.

In 1999, the U.S. federal government pointed the finger at Maine and other states decreeing that they were not in compliance with the Indian Child Welfare Act (ICWA). This lead to the creation of The Maine Wabanaki –State Child Welfare and Truth Reconciliation Commission (TRC) which later became Maine Wabanaki REACH which stands for Reconciliation, Engagement, Advocacy, Change and Healing. First Light introduces us to the technique and work of these commissions that began in 2013 as they attempt to discover what happened to Wabanaki families in the child welfare system, recommend improvements and illuminate the path toward healing and cooperation. Even in the short film, the American foster care system’s disproportionate native population was extremely prevalent.

Starting in 1879, the United States Federal Government mandated that any Native American children under the age of 16 should be removed from their home or tribe and assimilated into white schools and homes in an attempt to eradicate their native culture. This action would continue in the U.S. for almost a century with the last of these schools closing in 1981. This is the starting point of the TRC in 2013.

What the TRC concluded was that decolonization should be at the heart of the process of reconciliation, which introduces a new approach to healing for generations of Native people suffering from historical trauma. Decolonization tries to reverse the process that occurred after hundreds of years of attempted cultural genocide. A more frightening figure is that from 2002 to 2013, Native children in Maine entered foster care at more than five times the rate of non-Native children. In other states such as Minnesota, Native foster care rates can be as high as 20 times the rate of non-Natives while consisting of only one percent of the total state population. This answers the question of whether or not Native populations are still affected today by the cultural genocide of the past. The answer is a depressing and concerning “yes.”

The speakers from the Maine Wabanaki REACH Program and the TRC spoke after the screening about their role in the film’s creation as well as overall goals and achievements of their organizations. Esther Anne and Penthea Burns both co-direct Maine Wabanaki REACH and are extremely active in efforts to better their Native communities. Burns outlines how 400 years of European invasions and genocides have shaped her tribe’s current state. She says that the Wabanaki people have a life expectancy of only 54 years, and face high rates of physical diseases, mental illnesses and severe poverty. These are remnants of colonization that still cripple Native communities all over the country. In order to fight these conditions of historical oppression, Burns advocates cultural reclamation.

“It is a testament to their strengths,” Burns said, “that Wabanaki not only survive, but are focused on thriving by reclaiming cultural wellness and spiritual practices and building their communities and resources in ways respectful of the interconnections within nature.”

Teaching and learning about these cultural and historical struggles can help the new generation not repeat the mistakes of the past. REACH has been working with USM and the Muskie School to help foster a new understanding and response to how and why Native students have disproportionate enrollment rates in college. The effort to address the adverse impacts of colonial oppression on Native students and their recruitment, retention and academic success is an important piece of the puzzle that is reconciliation.

Burns talked about how important events like the First Light discussion are to preventing further oppression and awakening a thirst for understanding. She outlined that decolonization is not just a problem of the past, dismantling cultures using archaic strategies never to be found in modern society, but a modern danger that must be identified before it can be solved.

“Colonization is not only an historical concept related to European arrival and governmental relations. It is a current and active internalized system that defines all things (i.e., children, citizenship, rights, land, water, etc.) as resources that exist for the benefit of some through the oppression and harm of others, particularly indigenous people.” Burns said.

Decolonization is personal and grounded in community values. Burns is asking people to look at their lives differently; to unlearn, and learn again as they peel back the layers of systemic oppression.

“It is painful and humbling and necessary to recognize these impacts, but we do so in order to take responsibility for our own ongoing complicity in colonialism.” Burns said.

Mishy Lesser spoke before the screening about how many people were brought up knowing only one side of this historical narrative. Many non-Native people don’t even possess the understanding that non-Native ancestors’ colonialism hurt a modern Indigenous people.

“Unless we understand the process of dispossession triggered by the arrival of colonial settlers and how they justified taking someone else’s homeland, it will be hard for us to recognize that Indigenous peoples are contemporary peoples, they are our neighbors and colleagues and friends, and that they have been subjected to innumerable injustices for centuries.” Lesser said.

The need to make that connection between the history of our land and the more recent history of taking children is paramount to avoiding further damage to this once pristine society. Regardless of what someone’s race is or what someone thinks is or isn’t owed to the Natives of this land, education and connection are the tools that must be utilized in order to foster understanding, peace, and healthy communities.

Burns put it best, “Through this learning we recognize that it is our interconnectedness that will create change and help us all thrive. Decolonization embraces a commitment to creating a just future, with a peaceful and healthy world. We are bound together, approaching our relationships with humility, kindness, generosity and reciprocity not only for today, but holding the long view of the future.”

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