Screened at the 2022 Native Cinema Showcase, Daughter of a Lost Bird is a revelatory documentary of the shocking continued treatment of Native youth.
The 2022 Native Cinema Showcase continues, showing Native voices and aspects of indigenous culture to a broader audience. One such offering from them is Daughter of a Lost Bird, a sometimes awkward but revealing documentary about a practice which has gone mostly unreported regarding Native Americans, and the steps being done to fix it. Native tribes putting their children up for adoption is a sad reality within the United States, but means for them to reconnect with their families are improving, and government action and dedicated research ensured this movie could even be made at all. Director Brooke Swaney takes an unsettling coincidence and turns it into a search for identity with alarming results.
For her 2012 short film Breathe Auralee, Swaney cast actress Kendra Mylencuk Potter as a Native adoptee of a white family. Little did she know that not only was Kendra a Native adoptee of a white family herself, but so was her mother April. Being a generation removed from her Lummi tribe heritage, Kendra felt no connection to her heritage or any trouble with modern integration. After some discussions and arrangements with her tribe, though, Kendra decided to reconnect with her birth family. Swaney, herself a member of the Blackfeet and Salish tribes, sympathized with Kendra and turned her search into a documentary.
The name “Lost Bird” is given to Native adoptees by their tribes as commemoration. The term was inspired by a woman named Lost Bird recovered as a baby by General Leonard Colby after the Wounded Knee Massacre. Since then, many Native Children have been put up for adoption in hopes of a better life, integration into American culture, or financial reasons. Some children, like Kendra, were able to integrate with little trouble. Others, like Kendra’s mother, have to battle abusive households and suffer due to being from two worlds. This practice is almost ignored by modern American media. Putting it on film calls attention and shows many stories like Kendra’s in action. The Indian Welfare Rights Act has made it easier, but for those born before it was enacted, it cannot help them.
Kendra’s search takes seven years. After reconnecting with her mother in Portland, Oregon, Kendra at last gets invited to the Lummi reservation. She witnesses the culture with its singing and arts and crafts for the first time and falls in love with it. In spite of this, there is some connection still to be made, and she has to work her way back into her native land. In accordance with the old American mantra of “kill the Indian, save the man”, Kendra has been saved, but is still unsure if she deserves to be.
The documentary runs just over one hour. It feels unfinished at times, with awkward edits and text breaks disrupting some of the story. The ambiguous ending and plotlines left unresolved may be disappointing, but they show Kendra’s journey continuing and can play to both sides of the issue. As an actress, Kendra’s portrayal may seem ingenuine, given the knowledge she is able to perform for a persona outside this setting. Since this is Swaney’s first feature documentary, some leniency can be made for its flaws, and if her debut effort was this remarkable, her second should be even better.
Overall, Daughter of a Lost Bird does what a good documentary should by showcasing a specific topic not known to the public and expanding on it by telling a story through said topic. The struggles of Native children and their attempts to reconnect are often ignored by mainstream media, but they are an important aspect of Native culture today. The film showcases the modern state of indigenous people in America and investigates a reason why their culture is dying. Though, as this movie has shown, reconnecting with it is easier now than it was before.
Daughter of a Lost Bird is available to watch on demand on November 18–25 as part of the National Museum of the American Indian’s 2022 Native Cinema Showcase. Read our reviews from the Native Cinema Showcase.