On November 2, 2022, I had the privilege of attending a library screening of Kendra Mylnechuck Potter’s documentary, “Daughter of a Lost Bird.” The film details Kendra’s search for her Native American ancestry (Lummi) that Kendra didn’t explore within her white adoptive family. While taking on the role of producer and protagonist, Kendra covers the important events that comprise this personal journey and the implications of what this search means for the status of Indigenous tribes within the U.S.
The documentary depicts the intimate details of Kendra’s reconnection to her Lummi relations, from her first voicemail to her birth mother (April) to the warm reception and affection for her Lummi relatives. The audience collectively underwent various emotions as we watched Kendra’s journey unfold on the screen. We all laughed when April recounted a humorous anecdote where, after being reintroduced into the Lummi nation, her ogling of Lummi men was met with reproach by her birth father. We all waited in deference when Kendra shared in the traditional music of the Lummi people. We all quietly teared up when Kendra hugged her Lummi relatives during a ceremony welcoming her back into her birth nation, her home.
Notably, Kendra’s story is simultaneously stirring and poignant in how it connects to the discriminatory treatment of Native American tribes in the U.S. She alerts the audience to the modern-day circumstances of Tribal Nations and “Lost Birds” seeking a reconnection with their native roots. Through destructive policies historically targeting the cultures of Indigenous communities, the U.S. government sought an annihilation of nativeness. They took children out of their homes and placed them into boarding schools to “become civilized.” They put Natives in jail for practicing their beliefs. They forced children out of schools to assimilate into the white system as pawns for raising Indigenous cultures. They sought to absorb them into the white, western norm. These factors lead to the disparities Native American communities face concerning higher rates of substance abuse, suicide, disproportionate poverty, etc., which Kendra’s mother was, unfortunately, a victim of.
Though not a direct victim of such policies, Kandra’s circumstances arise from these social, political, and historical factors. “Lost Birds,” such as Kendra, face the debris of the fallout, left to pick up the pieces of the U.S. government’s destruction of native culture and to reconcile these disparities. Accepting her Lummi heritage means acknowledging how her identity is the product of the U.S.’s actions against her people. Kendra has to come to terms with how her circumstances reflect the intentional decimation of native culture, the deliberate assimilation of the “Dead Native.”
Her film doesn’t only illustrate her reconnection with her mother and Lummi relatives but also an unfolding of the complex, profound impact white Western culture has historically inflicted on indigenous communities. Her story is one of loss for a crucial aspect of herself not cultivated or acknowledged during childhood that she strives to understand as an adult.
When asked about her current reconciliation with her Lummi heritage during the panel discussion, she expressed that navigating her identity is still a complicated process. Though she is now officially recognized with Lummi citizenship, there is still that long-internal struggle regarding what it means for her to be native, to have this attribute of nativeness that was never recognized for most of her life. It almost forces her to try and understand the right way to be native, the right way to fully establish herself in Lummi society while still living and navigating her life before this path; she is still a wife, a mother, a filmmaker, an entrepreneur, and a woman raised by white culture. In that sense, she finds embracing her “true” identity challenging as it feels wrong or undeserved in some way; her upbringing did not consist of the traditions of the Lummi tribe, and there was no sense of nativeness. She even mentions in her documentary that when she took on the roles of characters with indigenous roots in other film projects, it was an imitation, cementing the disconnect that Kendra must reconcile with. The Native American identity has been so shunned and ignored in U.S. culture, pushed to the outskirts of our concerns, that for individuals like Kendra, there is a lot of pressure to find the “right way” to be native. She has to navigate through this institutionally influenced imposter syndrome to embrace and connect with her Lummi blood. Even when interacting with and meeting her Lummi relatives for the first time, she admits to wanting to play the role of a “tourist,” not wanting to accept what this connection means for her and her history.
However, despite her fears, despite the trauma and turmoil she now holds as her own, her Lummi relatives will always be there to embrace and accept her. Despite the emotional and social distance Kendra perceives to have about herself concerning her Lummi heritage, the Lummi nation greets her with a phrase so seemingly simple but so powerful; “I don’t know you, but I love you.” It doesn’t matter where she goes or how she owns and grows her nativeness to her Lummi relatives. She is always loved and cared for by this community, regardless of distance or time.
Kendra’s journey of self-discovery continues to unfold as she travels around the U.S. to share her experience with many audiences. During this, she continues to learn about the profound intricacies surrounding U.S. relations with various tribes and their sovereignty and how to reconcile with the symbolic weight revolving around her journey. Kendra’s ongoing story underlies the universal necessity for self-reflection and reconciliation necessary for progress, particularly regarding the relationship between the U.S. government and the sought rights of Indigenous groups. While her fear of typifying the “Dead Native” archetype remains, Kendra’s making of this documentary and willingness to share it with different educational institutions directly defy this idea. Her work encourages her audience to continue learning and educating themselves on these matters, especially considering all the “Lost [and Found] Birds.”