A 13 minute documentary about the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC), set up in Maine to investigate the forcible removal of Native American children from their homes over many years, debuts today.

For hundreds of years, Federal and state governments wrested Native American children from their parents and placed them in institutions of one kind or another or in the homes of white families in an effort to  “civilize the savage born”.   This practice and policy left many of those children psychologically battered for the rest of their lives.  One Native American woman told Maine's Truth and Reconciliation commissioners that she still has nightmares from the coming of age experience. 


“All we did was beg for our foster mothers to hug us and say they loved us.  My baby sister and I sat in a tub of bleach one time trying to convince each other that we’re getting white.  And then we knew they would accept us.  Where was the state? Where was the state?  They were supposed to have been our guardian.  But where were they?” 

An excerpt from "First Light", a 13-minute short documentary film about the work of the Maine Wabanaki-State Child Welfare Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC), described as the first such task force in US history to investigate forced removals. 

First Light from Upstander Project on Vimeo.

Adam Mazo of Somerville’s Upstander Project is the co-producer of First Light:

“Maine has led the way in trying to address this crisis of Native American children removed from their families at alarming rates.”

According to a 1976 report commissioned by the Association on American Indian Affairs, as many as one third of Native American children were separated from their families between 1941 and 1967.  

This problem of Native American children being taken from their families is not unique to Maine.   And it’s been going on for decades and centuries,” said Mazo.

“Even in the 1970’s, data was gathered that found that one in four native children were living away from their families, whether it’s through adoption, foster care, institutionalization, prison, boarding schools.  You had a whole 25 percent of Native American children living away from their parents and their tribes.”

Often explicitly racist rationales for removal have changed over the decades, but each year across the US hundreds of Native American children are separated from their parents.   Maine’s Wabanaki Child Welfare Truth and Reconciliation Commission is modeled on the process of investigation begun in Argentina and popularized in post-apartheid South Africa.   Credit for its creation in 2013 is given to the Chiefs of Maine's five tribes in collaboration with the state’s infamously conservative governor, Paul LePage.  

"It makes sense that the Truth and Reconciliation Commission would start in Maine—the eastern most point in the United States,” says  Mazo.  “And they [Native Americans] hope it would spread across the country.  Look at what has happened to Native American children through the child welfare system and say ‘let’s make a change and find ways for native children to be able to stay with their families.” 

“First Light”  is the first in a series of shorts on Native Americans to precede the feature film “Dawnland” slated for release in early 2017. 

RESOURCES: New England School of Law upcoming program for Thursday, Oct. 22

"Historical Justice and Indigenous Peoples’ Justice Claims in the United States" will feature a screening of First Light and a panel discussion on the Truth and Reconciliation Commission.