‘Bounty’ Documentary Film Confronts Government Issued Scalp Bounties Against Indigenous Peoples

In the new short, “Premium“, three families from the Penobscot Nation shed light on a troubling and little-known chapter in colonial-era history: the bounty system used to reward white settlers for the scalps of men, women, and even children. natives who had been declared their enemies.

To make the film, co-directors Maulian Dana and Dawn Neptune Adams took their children and other family members to the Old State House in Boston to read the death warrant issued against their Penobscot ancestors in 1755. Their research revealed that there were nearly 70 government-issued bounties for Aboriginal people in what is now New England.

Note: This interview has been lightly edited for clarity.

Maulian Dana: This grew out of the knowledge that the Penobscot have of these bounties throughout history on many tribes in this region, and this one specifically targeted the Penobscot. And we were very aware that we might have that kind of dark knowledge about the real story, but a lot of people in the country probably don’t. So this seems like a good educational opportunity to bring out the truth of this story and instill an element of hope and survival and sort of into those layers of generations by bringing our kids with you, you know, and reading the document in the room where it was written.

Robbie Feinberg: So for both of you, what was it like to be in that Old State House where it was signed, as you read that proclamation?

Dawn Neptune Adams: It’s a very heavy atmosphere there, you can feel the weight of history, you know, weighing down on you in that building. But as Maulian said, it’s a testament to our resilience, we’re still here, we’re still practicing our culture, our tradition, our languages, and our connection to the land, the water, and all of our relationships.

Feinberg: One element of this story that really stuck with me when I read about it is the legacy of these types of death warrants and others like them. These bounty hunters were actually given thousands of acres of land from the people they scalped and towns like Westbrook were actually named after some of these hunters. So how widespread are the legacy and ongoing effects of these acts?

Dana: I think sometimes we compartmentalize issues, we think of historical things as totally separate from our lives and interactions and relationships today. And I think that’s important when a lot of people think about the indigenous experience or the Wabanki experience in our homeland, we need to shine a light on this thread that examines this intergenerational trauma from those horrific and genocidal acts to today , where we have increased rates of disease, crime and drug abuse. And you know, these things didn’t happen by chance. We are not particularly predisposed to these kinds of negative outcomes. There is this echo of this trauma that has affected our people. And it’s important from a political point of view, from a social point of view, it’s really essential that we all understand the impact of this story on everything today.

Neptune Adams: The genocide started when colonization started here. And it continues in different forms today. We have battles with the state trying to take over our river so it can continue to pollute it. We have various other issues going on, and all of that stems from colonization. It is the continuation of colonization, the continuation of genocide, but in a different form.

Feinberg: This video is also just a small part of this great multimedia site that was created around the bounty. I noticed there’s this teacher’s guide, research, primary documents — all these different teaching tools. In Maine, we’ve had this law for two decades, requiring schools to teach Wabanaki history, but tribal historians have said that hasn’t really happened in many schools. How do you both hope this film and the other resources will be used statewide in schools?

Dana: It can be a very, very powerful resource for teachers. It’s not very long, it’s perfect for showing children, it comes with this whole program. So I really encourage teachers in Maine and teachers around the world to incorporate this into their Wabankai studies.

Neptune Adams: And I think it’s really important that teachers have the tools. I can tell a short story about when my child entered kindergarten, and we did kindergarten orientation. When we arrived at the library, I noticed that there was not a single book in this library on the Abenakis. When I told the school principal about it, he was shocked, but not for the reason I thought he would be shocked. He was shocked to learn that there were still Wabanakis in Maine. He was the principal of an elementary school.

Feinberg: What do you hope people take away from this documentary? And are there certain actions you hope people will take after watching this?

Dana: I hope people feel a little awkward and wake them up to some truths that they kind of have to sit with. And then I hope they are encouraged to support the tribes of Maine, in our political endeavors and our social endeavours.

Neptune Adams: And I think the first step is education. Again, educate ourselves and educate others. Being in solidarity with us is the goal. Abenaki and Indigenous peoples are being targeted, silenced and marginalized and it helps to have friends, allies and accomplices on our side in these battles.