Friday, June 17, 2022

Daughter of a Lost Bird


General Leonard Colby with Lost Bird

Director Brooke Pepion Swaney

Actress/producer Kendra Mylnechuk Potter

April Newcomb with Kendra Mylnechuk Potter


















DAUGHTER OF A LOST BIRD       A-                                                                                   USA  (66 mi)  2021  d: Brooke Pepion Swaney

An extremely intense and highly personalized documentary film that takes us into the Native American identity, exposing the effects of systematic adoption of Native children to outside communities and revealing its emotional devastation, reminiscent of the Australian Stolen Generation (The Stolen Generations - Australians Together), a lamentable period of racist history.  Phillip Noyce’s RABBIT-PROOF FENCE (2002) does an excellent job documenting the official child removal policy that existed in Australia from approximately 1905 and 1967 when it was official government policy that indigenous children were forcibly removed from their families in an attempt to “civilize” them, considered wards of the state and raised as “Christian white” children in orphanages where it was forbidden to speak their language, wear traditional clothes, or learn anything about their culture, severely punished for non-compliance, with their history purged from their memories, seemingly for their own benefit, as they would be trained to work as domestic servants or laborers in order to become productive members of “white” society.  But they were not alone, as this same sort of thing happened in the USA as well, though rarely written about or discussed as part of our history, as it’s important to examine the historical practices in the United States, Canada, New Zealand, and Australia, as each engaged in government-sponsored efforts to eliminate indigenous culture.  Just recently in February, the CBS 60-Minutes television news broadcast revealed the startling discovery of more than 1000 unmarked graves near Indian schools all across Canada (Canada's unmarked graves: How residential schools carried ... YouTube 13:31).  The children were often referred to as “savages” and were forbidden from speaking their languages or practicing their traditions.  Many were physically and sexually abused, and thousands of children never made it home.  A 2008 Truth and Reconciliation Commission heard testimony over a period of six years, concluding that what happened was “cultural genocide,” identifying more than 3000 children who died from disease due to overcrowding, malnutrition, and poor sanitation, or died after being abused or trying to run away, with the commission indicating the number of missing is well over 10,000.  The death rate in these schools was as high as 20 times the national average, with most having their own cemeteries, routinely failing to inform the families when children died.  According to Karine Duhamel from World Politics Review, Unmarked Graves Are a Moment of Truth for Canada ..., September 28, 2021: 

From the mid-19th to late 20th century, Canada’s residential schools separated roughly 150,000 Indigenous children from their families and transferred them into a network of more than 130 boarding schools, most of which were government-funded and run by Christian churches. The intent was to “civilize” Indigenous children through a forced assimilation program, after which, it was assumed, they would eventually blend in with the non-Indigenous society.

For hundreds of years in the United States, Federal and state governments have taken Native 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 has left many of those children psychologically battered for the rest of their lives.  In the late 50’s in the United States, in accordance with 1958 Indian Adoption Project, 25 to 35% of all Native children were forcibly removed from existing Native American families and sent to non-Native homes, many affiliated with white Christian religious organizations and boarding schools that severed any connections between Indian children and their families and tribes, where in some cases the Bureau of Indian Affairs actually paid the states to remove the children to be raised as whites.  Approximately 75-80% of Indian families living on reservations lost at least one child to this forced removal, where the Child Welfare systems were largely ignorant, indifferent, and racially insensitive to the effect this would have on those uprooted children and their families, many of whom lost all contact and never heard from their children again.  Native American tribes had no sovereign rights over these children, claiming this racist practice was an extension of the Manifest Destiny genocide of the 19th century where the U.S. Cavalry tracked down and either killed or forced Native Indians to remote reservations where large numbers starved to death or died of diseases.  Generations later when Indians didn’t die off, but somehow survived, this was a way of stealing their future, as families without children have no future.  Congress has sweeping powers over Native nations and Native people, including the authority to abolish tribes and tribal reservations, and to expand or restrict tribal authority, powers that come from a series of Supreme Court decisions in the late 1800’s and early 1900’s that were based on racist views about American Indians, granting Congress virtually unlimited authority over American Indian affairs because, the courts reasoned, Natives were not equipped to govern themselves. Instead they viewed Native Americans through a racist prism of “weakness and helplessness,” giving the federal government “broad domain” over tribal sovereignty, establishing a “condition of tutelage or dependency.”  During the second half of the 20th century, the American Indian population increased drastically, requiring the federal government to allocate more federal funds to the tribes.  In order to cut down on expenses, reducing the members of tribes through adoption appeared to be a good fiscal solution, so this was the origin of the child removal policy, though Natives view it differently, claiming the children become “a pawn in the war to end tribes.”

Coming on the heels of the boarding-school era that had begun in the late 1800’s, abusive residential schools set up to isolate and assimilate Native children, churches were involved, in the Southwest, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints took thousands of Navajo children to live in Mormon homes and work on Mormon farms, and the Catholic Church and other Christian denominations swept many more Indian youngsters into residential institutions they ran nationwide, from which some children were then fostered or adopted out.  As many as one third of Indian children were separated from their families between 1941 and 1967, according to a 1976 report by the Association on American Indian Affairs (Native Americans Expose the Adoption Era and Repair Its ...), though it should be pointed out that by then some Native communities, namely the Mohawk and Apache, refused to release their children to white parents.  Breaking up families leads to a plethora of social problems from drug and alcohol addiction, to higher rates of incarceration, and suicide levels at more than twice the national average.  Cultural disconnection, alienation, and pressure to assimilate all contribute to higher rates of suicide among American Indian and Alaska Native youth, all of which leads to historic levels of trauma.  Writer/director/producer Brooke Pepion Swaney grew up on the Flathead Indian Reservation, a Blackfeet-enrolled tribal member and a descendant of the Bitterroot Salish in Montana, attending Stanford University and then film school at New York University, enrolling cinematographer Zelmira Gainza, while Laura Ortman’s musical score adds a poetic quality.  The focus of this film examines the effects of the 1958 Indian Adoption Project, where the clear goal was to take Native kids away from their biological parents in an attempt to save the government money while dismantling Native tribes.  Native children adopted by white families during that time became known as “lost birds,” named after Zintkála Nuni, Lost Bird, a Lakota woman who was adopted (basically claimed as a war trophy) by General Leonard Colby who massacred her family at Wounded Knee.  The 50’s adoption practice was viewed as an abysmal failure, so in 1978 the Indian Child Welfare Act was passed, ostensibly to keep Indian children with Indian families, designed to protect children and tribal communities (though it’s currently being challenged in the Supreme Court), yet even in 2003, there were more than three times as many Native American children in foster care, per capita, compared to white children.  Many of these adopted children, now adults, struggle with memories from traumatic childhoods in abusive homes, while trying to figure out where they fit in as Natives in white communities.  Crafting an Indian version of Mike Leigh’s Secrets and Lies (1996), this documentary film opens with an adult Kendra (actress and producer Kendra Mylnechuk Potter) leaving a voicemail message to her birth mother, April Newcomb, a woman she has never met, separated for 34 years.  Potter was adopted as an infant and raised in Missoula, Montana by a white family, Sandy Henderson and Larry Mylnechuk, who were, by all indications loving and caring, yet she was fully assimilated into the white world.  Once informed that she was adopted, however, totally removed from her Native roots, she has many unanswered questions about her Native identity, not even knowing what tribe she was from.  This film follows her journey over the course of seven years to reconnect with that missing cultural heritage, starting with her birth mother, who was herself adopted as well, yet led a life of utter turmoil, running away from an abusive family, surviving on the streets of Portland, trapped in sex trafficking, while immersed in drug and alcohol abuse, eventually escaping to a life of sobriety, yet one of the most chilling revelations is hearing her say, “I was raped for the last time.”  Her harrowing life on the streets stands in stark contrast to the comfortable middle class life of Kendra.

While this remarkable film is Kendra’s story, reconnecting with her birth mother in Portland, but April’s journey mirrors hers, discovering she is a descendant of the Lummi Nation, the original inhabitants of Washington’s northernmost coast and southern British Columbia, whose lives for centuries have centered around the waters of Puget Sound.  Many Native adoptees struggle to recover their identities, having trouble accessing their birth certificates, with many states sealing them to protect the confidentiality of the process.  It’s clear, however, that April and Kendra have a profound effect on each other, with April studying the way she relates to her infant daughter, an experience she was denied, as she carried her pregnancy to term only to gift her baby to the adoptive family.  Kendra finds the undertaking a daunting task, discovering a growing emotional conflict, feeling increasing outrage at what happened to Native Indians throughout American history, including a systematic erasure of their culture through military annihilation, followed by white adoption and assimilation, feeling a large amount of guilt over her own “white” experiences, marrying a white husband, and living a relatively comfortable life, while also realizing her own life represents part of the eradication of Native culture.  When she and April return to the land of the Lummi tribe, despite her trepidations, they are treated like royalty, celebrated like the return of the prodigal daughters, having finally found their lost home.  But her expectations, viewing the experience much like a tourist, curious about what she could discover, profoundly differs with the Native expectations, thinking now that she was home that she would continue to live there, causing her even more conflict, as she felt as if she were betraying her own people.  While most welcomed them with open arms, that is not everyone’s experience, as many face open hostility, where a few hostile looks could be seen here as well, as she was viewed by some as that “white” girl who had all the advantages.  While the film doesn’t really focus on April, both are remarkably frank and articulate, sensing that she feels much the same way, though her experience is far different, discovering her father and brother, who never stopped searching for her all this time, yet she grew up believing she didn’t have a father, drifting endlessly for years without knowing where she came from, suffering continual abuse, costing her so much of her life, though she always identified as a Native, so her gravitation to Native families and ceremonies feels more informed than Kendra, who talks about not knowing what it means to be Native, remaining eternally outside the culture, as if permanently exiled.  With Kendra obviously overwhelmed by it all, Native elders sense that hesitance, informing her this will always be her home, embracing her with ceremony and affection, yet clearly she has another life elsewhere, while for April, finding her Lummi father was incredibly healing.  There are many sequences with April playing with her grandchildren, as Kendra has a second child, so she remains connected to Kendra’s life.  A curious insight is revealed by Kendra, who confesses she might never have gone through with all this if they were not shooting a film, as she felt an obligation to the director, who has her own agenda in trying to resolve the lost connections, developing a deeper understanding of what it means to be part of the indigenous people in the United States, joining the ranks of the millions trying to preserve their identity, and in the process strengthen tribal sovereignty, but Kendra found the experience too difficult to endure, as the sense of disconnection was so vast.  It speaks to the thoroughness of her white assimilation, recalling another extraordinary film, Gail Dolgin’s DAUGHTER OF DANANG (2002), where an Amerasian child was airlifted out of Vietnam at the end of the Vietnam War and raised by a white family, feeling equally assimilated into American culture, so her return to meet her birth parents is not at all what she expects, bordering on a horror reaction, returning home as quickly as possible.  Obviously this aspect of American history plays out on many levels, but what films like this provide is an intense personalization of the exhaustive time and effort adopted Indian children spend trying to reconnect with their missing pasts, revealing their difficulty to find healing, where the emotional devastation continues to plague their adult lives.  

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