When Passamaquoddy photographer and youth mentor Brianna Smith took her mask off, revealing for the first time her traditional facial tattoos to her grandmother, the older woman was speechless for a few moments.
But Dolly Apt wasn’t angry.
Apt said she had seen traditional line-and-dot patterns before, though perhaps not in waking life but rather somewhere within a deep well of collective tribal memory.
“I like it. I can’t explain it really yet,” Apt said. “It’s been totally erased from our minds what kind of culture, what kind of things we did way back when, before the invasion, before they came here and took it all away.”
The stirring, personal moment is captured in Smith’s new short film “Weckuwapasihtit (Those Yet to Come)” about younger Passamaquoddy people trying to recapture pieces of their lost heritage through traditional tattooing.
The 10-minute video is one of two Passamaquoddy films included in a series of seven called “The Reciprocity Project.” Each film in the series explores a different set of Indigenous people’s efforts to connect with their heritage, with the Earth and with each other, around the globe.
The project provided funding, distribution and technical expertise to first-time Indigenous filmmakers like Smith, allowing them to shape the films themselves.
“It’s usually other people telling our stories or telling us what we need to share,” Smith said.
Smith co-directed her film with Geo Neptune, another member of her tribe and a close friend.
“Our film is about where we fit in within our communities and regaining everything that was taken from us, including our language, our culture, our ceremonies and our identities as Passamaquoddy people,” Smith said. “We’ve had to do a lot of retracing of our ancestors’ steps. It’s OK to be Passamaquoddy, and it’s OK to not know what it means to be Passamaquoddy, but we can do the work to figure it out together.”
Also featured in the film is Aaron Dana, a tribal police officer who has traditional facial tattoos as well. Dana said at first he was worried about his tattoos upsetting his superiors at work.
“I didn’t ask for permission to get them, through work,” Dana said, intricate patterns adorning each of his temples. “There was nothing in our policies that would restrict me from work.”
His two sons then appear on camera beside him, rolling up their sleeves and revealing their matching tattoos.
“Just seeing the similarities of their markings to my markings and how the energies and the spirituality was connected, just through my offspring,” Dana said. “It’s just helped me feel a closer-ness to my sons, a more connectedness to my sons.”
The second Passamaquoddy film included in The Reciprocity Project, “Weckuwapok (The Approaching Dawn)” is credited to a collective of eight filmmakers, including Chris Newell.
Newell is the former executive director of the Abbe Museum in Bar Harbor as well as a children’s book author and tribal community member-in-residence at the University of Connecticut.
The film documents a musical sunrise ceremony of gratitude and features Newell, Chaubunagungamaug Band of Nipmuck flute player Hawk Henries, Passamaquoddy singer Lauren Stevens and world-famous cellist Yo-Yo Ma.
A highlight is Ma playing his instrument along with Newell as the latter sings an intricate powwow song.
“He was totally up for it,” Newell said of the 19-time Grammy winner.
Newell said the collaboration was actually Ma’s idea. The cellist called Newell and said he wanted to play with Indigenous musicians and asked about the most meaningful way to go about doing that.
Wabanaki people, including the Passamaquoddy, call themselves Waponahkik, or the people of the dawn land. Newell suggested a sunrise concert to Ma as a way of celebrating rebirth and hope after the darkest days of the coronavirus pandemic.
Ma agreed and the collaborators met on the Schoodic Peninsula in June 2021 as the glowing sun made its way over the horizon one morning, capturing the concert for the film.
“We put it on for humanity to do something good for human beings when times were very, very hard,” Newell said.
Both Passamaquoddy pieces made their debut at the Big Sky Documentary Film Festival in Montana earlier this year. Since then, they’ve played many more such events including the Camden International Film Festival, the Indigenous Peoples Film Festival and the Nuuk International Film Festival.
In addition to being available to view online now, the films also include downloadable transcripts and teaching materials.
A common theme running through the films is youth and the future.
Near the end of Newell’s film, his father, tribal elder and statesman Wayne Newell, states that it’s not enough to simply listen — action must also be taken.
“If we just leave here feeling good temporarily, then we’ve wasted our time,” the elder Newell said. “I see a lot of optimism because I see the generation to follow me. I see the next generation working their damnedest. We have a lot of work to do, they have a lot of work to do.”
Wayne Newell died six months later and the film is dedicated to him.
Smith’s grandmother had similar sentiments while ruminating about her granddaughter’s new tattoos.
“In my experiences growing up here, I learned that it’s the children that are going to
bring it back,” Apt said. “And from what I can tell, that’s exactly what is happening.”