One of the most pressing issues of our time is the mistreatment of Native and Indigenous Americans by the United States government. These abuses have been extensively recorded and documented as far back as Columbus’ arrival and still persist in modern day. It is important for Americans to recognize the existence of these abuses in order for Native peoples and Americans to reconcile.
Adam Mazo, co-founder of the Upstander Project, screened his film “Dawnland” at SUNY New Paltz to shed light on the abuses committed against the Wabanaki people by Maine’s Child Welfare System, the Maine-Wabanaki Truth and Reconciliation Commision (MWTRC) that was created to document said abuses and their efforts to heal. The film was screened at Lecture Center 108 on March 6.
The Upstander Project was founded in 2009 by Mazo and Dr. Mishy Lesser. The documentary film project was born during the production of their 2014 documentary film “Coexist,” covering the aftermath of the Rwandan genocide through the eyes of witness, victims and survivors. Over the projects 10 year existence, it has released two other documentaries in addition to “Dawnland,” all three of which cover Native American issues. The project’s main mission is to teach students and educators how to be ‘upstanders,’ a role that has a distinct meaning for Mazo.
“Being an upstander is standing up and speaking out to injustice,” Mazo said. “Even sometimes in great risk to [yourself], so it’s not just about protecting somebody in an interpersonal way from say physical violence, but also speaking up about injustices that are perpetrated against groups of people by governments or by social groups.”
Mazo was asked to come to campus after the history department found out about his work and “Dawnland.” Associate Professor of history Meg O’ Sullivan was the leading force in bringing him to campus.
“The documentary aired on PBS in November and I watched it, and after seeing it I was just a hundred percent convinced I had to double down on my efforts to bring him to campus,” O’Sullivan said.
As a professor in Native American history, O’Sullivan wants her students to question their own role as citizens of the United States.
“There’s this piece when I teach that always kind of asks the question,” O’Sullivan said. “‘If we are not indigenous and residents of the United States, what is our work and what are our responsibilities in terms of understanding the past and thinking about justice and the present?’”
The documentary covered the long investigation conducted by the MWTRC in regards to the treatment of Native American children by the United States Welfare System in Maine against the Wabanaki people. Ever since the late 1800’s, Native American children would often be forcibly taken from their families and tribes by “Indian Schools” or the government under the guise of civilizing them or protecting them.
The main focus of the film was not only the difficulties that MWTRC had properly accommodating the Wabanaki people and Maine Wabanaki REACH (REACH), a Wabanaki advocacy group, but highlighting the stories of the Wabanaki people who had forcibly gone through the child welfare system. They would recount stories of being adopted by abusive and racist parents, their efforts to assimilate into American society and ultimately the difficulty they faced reconnecting with their tribe. While the film ends with MWTRC releasing their extensive report and the Wabanaki people are as strong as ever, there are still clear scars that need healing.
The student audience was incredibly receptive to the film. The Lecture Center was packed with students and had plenty of questions for Mazo regarding his work, Native American struggles and the film itself.
“I was particularly interested that they did show the divisions within the organization and it became almost a partisan division, particularly between the Caucasian people and the people of Native American ancestry,” said fourth year history major Neil Higgins.
Higgins also hopes the film bridges a gap between two different schools of thought when it comes to social issues.
“I hope [movies] like this [do] two things. One, it gets maybe the more critically analytical people to engage on an empathetic level, and I would hope on the flipside, people who tend to just feel that empathetic emotional response to divisive issues like this engage in more critical level,” Higgins added.
Ultimately, Mazo wants viewers to understand that Native peoples are not just confined to the history books, but are still living and breathing groups.
“We hope [viewers] see Wabanaki people are still here, and that indigenous people that are still here, and here that settler colonialism is an ongoing process that those of us in the dominant culture like myself support on a daily basis, even if it’s unwittingly,” Mazo said.
“We can actively work towards by decolonization by raising up Wabanaki/Indigenous voices and believing their stories and promoting their stories,” said Mazo.
Mazo also encourages people to support government leaders who support Indigenous peoples rights and sovereignty so that these abuses by the government can cease.
As of publication, “Dawnland” is not yet available for individual purchase, but can be purchased by educators, libraries, tribes, community groups and theaters. Visit http://dawnland.org and https://upstanderproject.org/dawnland for more information.