In 1978, the U.S. Congress passed the Indian Child Welfare Act (ICWA). The law was supposed to prevent the decades-long problem of social workers and agencies forcibly removing Native American children and placing them in foster care, or putting them up for adoption with white families.
That continued a program of assimilation dating back to the 19th century, when Native American families were first coerced into sending their children to boarding schools. There, they were forbidden from speaking their language or wearing tribal clothes, and were often physically and emotionally abused.
But it is unclear whether ICWA has had an effect. Until a 2016 regulatory change, there was little mandated tracking of compliance with the law. (A 2007 study did find that Native American families are four times more likely to have their children taken away from them by the authorities than white families.)
Still, the continuing removal of Native American children from their tribes has left its scars. The complicated attempts to move past that — and the role of the state in doing so — were the main topic of “Dawnland,” a 2019 documentary that screened at Harper Theater on March 5, part of a series on race and American schools by Cinema 53, the University of Chicago’s community screening and conversation program.
“Dawnland” follows the work of the Maine Wabanaki-State Child Welfare Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC), which spent two years interviewing 150 people about child welfare practices in Maine’s Native American communities, collectively known as the Wabanaki.
The documentary includes the testimony of people affected by forced removal: a woman whose mouth was washed out with soap by her adopted mother, another who couldn’t eat for 24 hours if she stole food from the foster home she was placed in, and the parents who had their children taken away from them.
The movie also traces the tensions between the Native people working with the commission and non-Native employees and commissioners. During one meeting, non-Natives outnumber Native people giving testimony about their experiences. Esther Attean, co-director of advocacy group Maine-Wabanaki REACH, suggests that all non-Native people leave the room.
Later that evening, there’s an uncomfortable meeting among the people involved with the commission’s work. One white commissioner worries that there won’t be enough of a movement toward “reconciliation” if white people are sometimes prohibited from listening to the testimonials, while Attean says that her primary concern is ensuring the Wabanaki people can tell their stories.
The TRC did ultimately produce a report, one that argues the actions of the state through the child welfare system constitute a form of cultural genocide.
“We realize that these are forceful words and that they may land in readers’ hearts and minds as blame. It is hard to fathom for many in Maine that genocide occurred here, much less that it continues to occur in a cultural form,” the commissioners wrote. “Not everyone will share our interpretation. But it would violate the terms of our mandate should we fail to respond to what we had seen and how we came to understand it.”
After the screening, Eve Ewing, a professor at the School of Social Service Administration at the University of Chicago, moderated a discussion with Heather Miller, executive director of the American Indian Center. Miller expressed some reservations about the aims of the TRC.
“The truth and racial healing commissions that we saw represented in the film and what we looked at and what we saw represented here, those are fantastic, those are lovely — for some folks,” she said. “For me, and in my experience — and I can only really speak for myself at this point — I know what happened, I know where we come from, I know the personal impacts of my family and what we experienced because of these policies.
"If you guys cannot understand or accept or acknowledge my truth at this point, I’m sorry for that. But let’s take some action and let’s make this not happen for other generations.”
Miller also applauded the recent decision by Chicago Public Schools to change Columbus Day to Indigenous People’s Day. (Mayor Lori Lightfoot said the city has no plans to follow suit.) She criticized a proposed law that requires schools with Native Americans to seek written approval from a nearby tribe. Miller said that Native Americans had not been consulted on the law, and that it could violate tribal sovereignty.
Meanwhile, ICWA is facing a challenge of its own. In 2018, a Texas judge ruled the law unconstitutional under the Fourteenth Amendment. The case was reheard in front of a panel of judges in late January — the court has not yet issued its decision.