INDIAN ISLAND, Maine – A fire that destroyed a section of Old Town, adjacent to the Penobscot Indian Reservation, in 1997 sparked the production of a documentary that is now being used to educate the state’s public school students about American Indians.
Chief Poolaw’s Trading Post was among the businesses that burned, and racist comments heard on the street that night disturbed members of the local Episcopal church. In response, the church asked a retired priest, the Rev. Roger Smith, to develop a workshop on racism towards American Indians, Penobscot tribal historian James Earl Francis said.
Smith served as chair of the Maine Legislature’s Task Force on Tribal-State Relations, which issued a report the same year which read: “Racism is experienced by the Wabanaki, but is not generally recognized by the majority society. Racism is part of the context of tribal-state relations.”
The Episcopal Church’s National Committee on Indian Work had resolved in 1985 to side with tribes on treaty rights and self-determination, and the Maine Diocese had formed a Committee on Indian Relations that sought to reconcile the historic legacy of injustice towards the state’s indigenous people. It had noted the “alarming state of relations between the white and Indian communities” and reiterated that many tribal challenges are the result of racism.
“Maine’s Penobscot, Passamaquoddy, Micmac, and Maliseet people – the Wabanaki – have lost much in terms of land and culture during four centuries of contact,” according to a statement issued by the CIR. “Yet, to most of the White community in the state, the tribes are invisible. When asked about their relations with nearby Maine Indians, most white persons say they have none. And, they add, they know of no way to meet these neighbors.”
But when several high-profile political issues cast the spotlight on Maine tribes, racist attitudes cropped up like knapweed.
The need for education was evident to Smith, who said he is convinced the state of Maine has a very clear anti-Indian policy.
“It’s not one a lot of people want to tangle with,” he said. “It involves the state and private industry.”
But he was unable to find adequate teaching materials for his workshop.
In response, the Episcopalians commissioned the documentary, “Invisible.” They raised $78,000 and enlisted Francis, David Westphal and Gunnar Hansen (of “Texas Chain Saw Massacre” fame) to develop the content in conjunction with Maine’s tribes. Westphal and Hansen had previously collaborated with Maine Natives on “Wabanaki,” a film about Wabanaki spirituality, and “Penobscot: the People and Their River.”
Francis acknowledged non-Indians have little understanding of their indigenous neighbors.
“Before we did this film we did some checking in the communities next to the reservation. They know very little,” he said.
The ignorance was also obvious to Donna Loring, a Penobscot representative in Maine’s Legislature, when a bill introduced to remove offensive place names from state maps resulted in comments that revealed an appalling lack of sensitivity.
“Donna realized she had to do a lot of educating of her fellow legislators about Native people in Maine,” Francis said. “That’s when she decided there was a need to start educating folks early.”
That led her to sponsor a bill requiring schools to teach all students about Wabanaki history, culture, economics, jurisdiction and government systems.
When L.D. 291 passed in 2001, teachers were faced with a dearth of adequate resources, just as Smith had been for his anti-racism workshop.
“They were desperate for material,” said Francis, who worked with the Wabanaki Studies Commission, which was established by the education law to develop appropriate curriculum.
He and Smith arranged for the Penobscot Nation Cultural and Historic Preservation Department to distribute “Invisible” to schools.
The film’s impact was tested in a pilot project that involved Indian studies units being developed for high schools. About 200 students in Readfield who viewed the film were more engaged in the topic when they saw “Invisible” at the beginning of the course rather than viewing it later on, Francis said. Since then, thousands of copies have been shipped out.
“We sent one to every high school and junior high school in the state of Maine,” he said.
He continues to fill requests from throughout the United States and Canada.
“Invisible” features personal Wabanaki testimonies. It comes packaged with a discussion guide to help facilitators manage people who get upset when confronted with the subject matter.
For example, they are asked to discuss their first memory of an American Indian, how residential boarding schools impacted Native culture and how the dominant society still benefits from oppression of indigenous people.
“People go through a certain process when they see a film like this and it’s kind of difficult,” Francis said.
The experience is designed to produce what he refers to as “recovering racists.” That doesn’t mean they are horrible people, Francis explained, but that they have been programmed and socialized from a young age to harbor false impressions.
“It’s hard-hitting,” he said. “It’s a very touchy subject, but I think it’s delivered in a way that isn’t as tough to receive as it could have been.”