Georgina Sappier-Richardson, taken from her home at age 2 and raised in a series of foster homes in northern Maine, is the subject of a new documentary, “Dear Georgina.” Photo by Jeremy Dennis (Shinnecock), courtesy of the Upstander Project

As a young girl growing up in foster homes in northern Maine, Georgina Sappier-Richardson often went hungry for lack of food, but picked potatoes before going to school – and then was forced to turn her paychecks over to her foster parents.

When she spoke the wrong word, her foster parents washed her mouth with lye soap. When she got lice, they soaked her head in kerosene and set her by the stove, believing the heat from the stove would somehow kill the lice. And when someone from the state was scheduled to show up to see how things were going, she was threatened with a leather strap if she said anything about the “abnormalities” of her young life.

Sappier-Richardson, who died in July, was among the hundreds of thousands of Indigenous children who were removed from their homes and forced to grow up in non-Indigenous foster homes, and was part of a wider, multi-generational effort to eradicate Indigenous culture in parts of the United States. Sappier-Richardson was removed from her home in the Passamaquoddy community known as Motahkomikuk, near Calais, by state child protection services in 1942, when she was 2. She never saw her parents again, and lived in four different foster homes over 16 years.

Filmmakers Adam Mazo and Ben Pender-Cudlip told a small part of her story in the Emmy Award-winning documentary “Dawnland” about the mid-20th century removal of Wabanaki children from their homes and the effort in Maine of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission to investigate the impact of those separations on multiple generations. The filmmakers have followed up with a short movie dedicated entirely to Sappier-Richardson’s story called “Dear Georgina.”

Georgina Sappier Richardson (Passmaquoddy) high school photograph. Still from video by Ben Pender-Cudlip, courtesy of the Upstander Project

A 15-minute short, the movie follows Sappier-Richardson as she rediscovers lost details of her youth and early identity, through grade-school photos and report cards, as she reintegrates into her Passamaquoddy community as an adult. She lived much of her adult life in Pennsylvania, returning to Calais each summer.

The Press Herald and Abbe Museum are collaborating to stream a sneak preview of the movie at 7 p.m. Wednesday, followed by a Q&A with Mazo and Penobscot Nation Tribal Ambassador Maulian Dana. They will discuss issues raised in the film and how those issues apply today. It will be widely released May 7.

“Dear Georgina” has screened at festivals and private online viewings. Sappier-Richardson watched it at the Camden International Film Festival in fall 2019 – and loved it, according to her son. “The film was like therapy to her,” said Dwight Parrott, who lives in Calais. “That’s the best I can explain. She felt really good about it. In her heart, she felt, ‘Someone is finally listening to me.’ ”

She died July 13, 2020, following a stroke that spring. “She came into the world in pain and she died in pain,” said her son.

After being removed from her home and separated from her birth parents, she suffered abuse and trauma at the hands of her foster parents. Her removal, and the removal of thousands of other of Indigenous children from their communities, was part of a larger effort to separate them from their culture, Mazo said. The movie tells the story of self-discovery through the voice of an elder.

“I could tell by the skin that I was different,” Sappier-Richardson says in the movie. “But they had put it in my head, brown means it’s not good. My foster parents told us about run if you see an Indian, and we did it.” When she returned to the reservation at age 30 and was told she looked exactly like her mother, that “made me feel real,” she says.

Georgina Sappier-Richardson’s school photo. Courtesy of MSAD 42 and the Upstander Project

Mazo sees “Dear Georgina” as a sequel to “Dawnland.” The first film told the larger story of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, whereas “Dear Georgina” tells a single story of one woman’s journey to understand her past and reconnect with her heritage in meaningful ways. “There are not a heck of a lot of films out there that focus on Indigenous elders, or more specifically Wabanaki elders or Passamaquoddy elders and particularly women,” Mazo said. “Her story is an incredible story of loss and trauma, and she went on this incredible journey of self-discovery.”

“Dawnland” and “Dear Georgina” were produced under the umbrella of the Upstander Project, which uses documentary filmmaking as a tool for education and awareness of the need for upstanders – people who stand up and speak out in defense of others targeted for injustice. Mazo directs the Upstander Project.

He said he and his colleagues were drawn to Sappier-Richardson because she was an engaging person with a big laugh, who was willing tell a personal and tragic story. She was not shy in front of the camera. “As folks will see in the film, she is dynamic, funny and inspiring,” Mazo said. She welcomed the film crew into her home and life and allowed them to film her as she visited her former elementary school in Mars Hill, where she saw photos of herself as a grade-school student for the first time – and where a report card described her as “Very timid. Complex.”

She also visited a foster home where she lived as a child. The woman who lived there tells Sappier-Richardson she remembers her mother-in-law saying they had foster kids “more to work and for the money they were getting … than because they really cared about you.”

Dana said the movie needs to be seen so people recognize that while “legacies of repression and trauma” against Wabanaki people are rooted in colonization that goes back hundreds of year, those legacies and trauma are linked by recent history and current events. (Among her advocacy efforts, Dana works to bring attention to the epidemic of missing and murdered Indigenous women.) “We think of this in a long-ago context, but it’s a lot more recent than we realize. When you see Georgina telling her story and how this affected her life and family and community, you realize this is a recent thing and it’s ongoing and is not something you can just get over.”

In the movie, Georgina’s husband admonishes her for holding on to her burdens, and tells her, “If you let it go, you don’t carry that burden no more.”

Georgina Sappier-Richardson lights sage in a ceremony at her home. Still from video by Ben Pender-Cudlip, courtesy of the Upstander Project

Dana is writing a script for a play about Margaret Moxa, a Penobscot peacemaker who was murdered in 1755 by a settler collecting bounties for the scalps of Penobscots. She expects to finish a first draft by June and have the play ready for the theater sometime later. Her play is part of a broader Upstander Project initiative called “Bounty” examining the 1755 Phips Bounty Proclamation in Massachusetts, which attached monetary bounties to the scalps of Penobscots and led to Moxa’s murder. In addition to making a movie about Dana’s play after it’s completed, the Upstander Project is planning an additional movie about the Phips Bounty Proclamation, Mazo said. “Government-funded scalp-bounty hunting was a systematic campaign to rid the land of Wabanaki so settlers could take over the land,” he said.

Sappier-Richardson’s contemporary story exists within that historical context. The trauma of Wabanaki people since the 1700s resonates with Sappier-Richardson’s generation and people today, Dana said. “I don’t have to worry about my family being hunted. The stakes are different now. But the feeling of being isolated and having land taken and life taken echoes through generations,” she said.

Movies like “Dear Georgina” give people hope. As much as it is a story of loss, it’s a story of healing, the importance of family, and the power of home.

“It gives people space to go through their own personal journey without feeling guilt or shame. A lot of people have stories like Georgina,” Dana said.

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