Last night we saw the premiere of a documentary about the successful struggle to retire the last “Indian” school mascot in Maine.
The Maine International Film Festival (MIFF24) presented FIGHTING INDIANS by Skowhegan High School alums Mark Cooley and Derek Ellis as a work-in-progress, but it is pretty nearly finished.
Full disclosure: I watched the film with special interest as I knew it was likely I would appear at some point, and we sat with one of the cinematographers, John Harlow, and his family. His late father Doug Harlow’s byline on a newspaper article was one of many poignant images for me. So was seeing my great-niece Leah Savage speaking at a public forum accompanied by her sister Sydalia. Ditto seeing my former student and neighbor Sikwani Dana as a young girl testifying to how hard it is to grow up Native in central Maine.
Her sister Maulian Dana and their dad Barry carry the film’s narrative, appropriately enough since they led the years long retirement drive. Maulian works as the Ambassador of the Penobscot Nation and Barry is a chief who served the tribe years ago in that capacity. John Bear Mitchell, also Penobscot and a professor at the University of Maine campus built on land ceded by the tribe, was a third strong voice in the film. Dwayne Tomah, a Passamoquoddy language and culture keeper who gifted us with a gathering song as a special treat before the screening, was a rare treat; his appearance in full regalia to speak in Passamoquoddy to the school board in 2019 was riveting and an anchor for the film.
I know all these people, so I’m not an impartial reviewer.
The filmmakers skillfully built their story from a huge trove of material, and they made the bold decision to include the context of struggles to retire professional sports “Indian” mascots and team names. Also the land theft, massacres, child removal, and tokenization Native people have endured since Columbus raped his way into the “New” World. It’s a big topic and maybe the film is a little too long, but not much. For the final edit I’d advise cutting some of the sports journalists’ remarks and some of the background material on the Washington DC football team’s efforts to buy influence with Native people nationwide.
Strong use of social media posts by the Skowhegan “Indian Pride” group and its supporters told the tale that interviews could not — because few would agree to be interviewed for the project. Still, we heard from them plenty in videos of school board meetings and public forums. An excellent example was a young woman who claims Native ancestry and who played a drum so ignorantly that it elicited face palms of embarassment for her from the actual Natives in the audience.
Because you can’t just paint your face or put feathers in your hair or play a drum and become “Indian” — and that is the main point of the film.
In Maine, Wabanaki people — an umbrella term for the five remaining tribes — explain that seeing things sacred to their ceremonies being ignorantly misused is painful. Their identity can’t be faked; it has to be learned from infancy, through practice, and we see a bit of this in the film.
FIGHTING INDIANS includes my testimony to the school board at a public forum in February, 2019. I had permission from Maulian to read some of the nasty, misogynist, racist slurs and threats against her from comments on social media. She wanted the school board to hear the reality giving lie to the ubiquitous claim that the school mascot “honored” Native people. One of the comments I shared: “We conquered them and can use them however we like.”
But the Wabanaki have survived attempted genocide, and are a people unconquered.
Twelve thousand years of continuous existence in what’s now called Maine makes them a people determined to survive in order to honor their ancestors who endured slaughter and child abuse at the hands of the state.
Kudos to Ellis and Cooley. This is an important film, a landmark in Maine history. I had not anticipated how much the audience would laugh during this film about difficult truths, but it seemed appropriate because humor is a strong element in Wabanaki culture. Maybe even a survival strategy?
Appropriately for a theatre full of activists, we were sent home with an action item: call Gov. Janet Mills and urge her to sign legislation honoring the sovereignty of Maine’s Native governments. Contact info for the Governor: 207-287-3531 or email using her contact form.
FIGHTING INDIANS can be seen again tonight (July 11, 2021) at the Skowhegan Drive-in as MIFF24 continues. Tickets are available here.