Vermont recognizes 2 Abenaki tribes

By Lisa Rathke
Montpelier, Vermont (AP) April 2011

Years after the first Abenaki Indians sought to be publicly recognized in Vermont, the state last week granted recognition to two tribes: the Elnu Abenaki, based in Windham County and the Nulhegan Band of the Coosuk Abenaki Nation in northeastern Vermont.

Gov. Peter Shumlin signed the bills Friday, a step that could allow the tribes to sell their crafts as Indian-made and seek federal education grants but means much more.

“Today we have stepped out of the darkness and into the light,” said Don Stevens, of Shelburne, chief of the Nulhegan Band, who along with others later celebrated with drumming on the Statehouse steps.

At least 1,700 Vermont residents say they are direct descendants of the Western Abenaki tribes that inhabited all of Vermont and New Hampshire, and parts of Maine, Quebec and New York, for hundreds of years before the arrival of Europeans, according to a Vermont law that set up a process for state recognition that passed in 2010. They include the Missisquoi and Cowasuck Abenaki who farmed the river floodplains of Vermont at least as long ago as A.D. 1100s, the law said.

But in the 1930s, many Vermont residents of mixed French-Canadian and Native American heritage, as well as poor, rural whites, were placed on a state-sanctioned list of “mental defectives” and degenerates and placed in state institutions. Some had surgery after Gov. Stanley Wilson in 1931 won enactment of a sterilization law.

“Today marks a turning point, the signing of two pieces of legislations by our governor that essentially washes away that very bad history and recognizes the culture that has been with us long before the European settlers move to place that we now call Vermont,” said state Sen. Vincent Illuzzi, who has pushed for state recognition.

In signing the bills, Shumlin told a group of children surrounding him that his great-great-great-grandfather was a native American man who could not talk about his heritage.

“So his photo stands in my living room as their tribute to an extraordinary man who could not talk about his identity and today we sign these bills so that you can be proud of yours,” he said.

In years past, the state has been reluctant to recognize Abenaki, fearing it could bolster one tribe’s bid to win federal recognition, which opponents said could lead to land claims and gambling casinos. The Vermont attorney general’s office also had questioned the St. Francis/Sokoki Band’s heritage in Vermont and opposed federal recognition, which the band was denied in 2007. Now that band and at least one other one are seeking state recognition.

In their applications for state recognition, the tribes met certain criteria documented by membership and records, which show they are descended from identified Vermont or regional Native people, according to the Vermont Commission on Native American Affairs, which recommended that the Legislature grant recognition to the two tribes, under the new state law. The applications were reviewed by independent scholars, the commission said.

But some in the Abenaki community have questioned the process for recognition, the experts and the authenticity of the tribes.

“Vermont legislators passed a law establishing vague criteria that most any social club could pass for recognition as an ‘Indian tribe,’ violating our rights for the sole purpose to ‘sell crafts,’“ said Denise Watso of Abenaki First Nation in an email.

Illuzzi said critics have been unable to explain to him why it would hurt the state to recognize what he described as tribes “that have existed here for generations but have been required to go underground because of the eugenics movement and other anti-Indian sentiments of the past.

“Until they convince me otherwise I’m on board,” he said.

Stevens said it’s time for Abenaki people to put aside their differences and work together.

“People have different reasons for trying to oppose recognition. There’s a lot of lateral violence out there against different minority groups. All I have to say to any opponents is it’s time to heal. The nation needs to heal. Let’s stop the white man’s bickering and let’s heal our nation and work together,” he said.