Film, panel discussion about truth and reconciliation commission draws crowd


by Cynthia Price
Legal News

It is admittedly very painful to watch the movie Dawnland, but it is worth keeping in mind that the pain of watching is nothing compared to the pain Native Americans felt at the unfolding of the events at the film’s center.

Dawnland concerns the journey of Maine’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission in uncovering the trauma inflicted on people in the Indian tribes of the state. It is a dual narrative of the work of the commission and of the people whose lives have been damaged by United States federal policy that encouraged removing native chidden from their tribes so they could learn “civilized” ways.

Judge Timothy Connors of the Washtenaw County Trial Court and his Peacemaking Court, along with Cinetopia Film Festival, facilitated bringing not only the film but one of the commission members, Sandy White Hawk, to a screening and a panel discussion at the historic Michigan Theater in Ann Arbor on November 13.

An audience of about 200 viewed the movie, and most stayed for all or part of the long and informative panel discussion which followed.

Starting in 1879 with the creation of the Carlisle School in Pennsylvania, the United States sought to “save” Indian children by teaching them “civilized” ways. Even when the boarding schools — typified by Holy Childhood in Harbor Springs, mentioned by some of the panelists – were discontinued, removal of Native American children from their tribes and placement as foster children or adoptees continued the worldview behind that policy.

Finally, the Indian Child Welfare Act (ICWA) of 1974 legislated an end to that, though even now there are a disproportionate number of American Indian children removed from their parents. Since then, there has also been gradual progress towards a recognition of the sovereignty of Native American tribes and other beneficial policies. Concurrently, there is  a broader societal recognition of how the continent’s original inhabitants have been wronged, which has resulted in a call for truth, healing and reconciliation commissions such as the one depicted in Dawnland.

The Maine commission first sought to gather the stories of Maine tribal residents who had been hurt by the long assault on their lives and traditional ways. The film records story after story of not only physical, sexual, and verbal abuse at the schools and in foster care, but also the disabling pain of disconnection from their heritage. So many were unable to return to their tribes due to feelings of shame for being Indian and a sense of belonging nowhere. Some talked about how this deliberately-inflicted brokenness resulted in substance abuse and addiction.

“Colonization and our subsequent federal policies had been a process of dismembering: dismembering of community, dismembering of spirituality, dismembering of language, dismembering of culture,” wrote Judge Connors in a 2011 article on ICWA for the Judges’ Journal, a publication of the American Bar Association.

But he and many others have worked to make Michigan a leader in doing the difficult collaboration and coordination that honors the rights of tribal courts’ jurisdictions.

There are twelve federally recognized tribes in Michigan, and each has a court. As reported earlier this month (11/7/18), Michigan’s Tribal State Federal Judicial Forum facilitates cooperation.

Maine’s Commission on Truth and Reconcilation was charged with developing a final report. After hearing and recording such an outpouring of pain, they felt it was premature to move into the healing and reconciliatin phase, so they called it “Beyond the Mandate: Continuing the Conversation.” The report’s first two recommendations are to support tribal sovereignty and “[h]onor Wabanaki choices to support healing as the tribes see fit.”

Commission member Sandy White Hawk, originally a Lakota from the Rosebud Reservation in South Dakota, now lives in Minnesota. She is the award-winning founder/ director of First Nations Repatriation Institute. She gave of her wisdom and  calming presence to lead the panel discussion, which also included Judge Connors, Tribal Chief Judge Allie Maldonado (see article below), and Anne McKeig, a Minnesota Supreme Court Justice and Native American.

Several panelists emphasized the healing they felt when they came home, both physically and culturally, to their native tribes.