Abenaki Appeal To Legislators
Published By Terri Hallenbeck
Saturday, February 16, 2008
MONTPELIER -- Vermont Abenaki told legislators Friday that their own bands -- not the Legislature
or a commission -- should decide who is Abenaki. "Indian decides who's Indian," Nancy Millette of
Newbury, former chief of the Kaosek Traditional Band of Abenaki, told the Senate Economic
Development, Housing & General Affairs Committee, citing the findings of a recent United Nations
Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous People.
The issue of official recognition of the Abenaki resurfaced in the Legislature after the Vermont
Commission on Native American Affairs discovered last year that a law passed in 2006 did not
meet the federal Bureau of Indian Affairs regulations. Those allow only members of state or
federally recognized tribes to sell their arts and crafts as native-made, and the 2006 law gave no
one the authority to grant recognition to specific tribes.
The committee heard from several bands of Abenaki on Friday, as legislators try to fix the law by
giving somebody the authority to recognize specific bands. Figuring out who, though, won't be
"I don't think the Legislature has the right to decide who is Abenaki," said April St. Francis Merrill,
chief of the St. Francis/Sokoki Band of the Abenaki Nation of Missisquoi, based in Swanton.
She also said that she doesn't trust the seven-member Commission on Native American Affairs to
decide which tribes should be recognized. Her band has refused to have an official representative
on the commission because commissioners were not required to provide historical documentation
that they are Abenaki, she said.
Millette agreed that the commission poses problems. The commission has two members who are
from the Odenak band of Abenaki. That band has official recognition in Canada, which allows them
to sell arts and crafts as native-made.
"What I feel and a lot of Kaosek feel is that they shouldn't have any say in what happens to
Abenaki people over the border," Millette said. "It's like a conflict of interest."
Millette was among those who said Abenaki would be willing to share with the state the process
bands use to determine who is Abenaki, but will not release their full files. "We are never going to
turn our names over to the state of Vermont," she said. "There's one reason for it, and the word is
In the 1920s and '30s, Vermont Abenaki were subjected to a state-sponsored eugenics campaign
that promoted the sterilization of Abenaki as an undesirable population.
Millette said the official recognition is needed because Abenaki are not allowed to dance at some
powwows or sell their art at some festivals. Vera Longtoe Sheehan, a member of the Elnu
sub-band of the Kaosek, said some organizations have become more accepting of Abenaki since
the 2006 law passed, but she's been turned down by museums because her tribe lacks official
Merrrill said her band's members have not had problems and that the arts and crafts issue is not a
high priority for her.
Fred Wiseman, tribal historian for the St. Francis/Sokoki band, recommended allowing the
commission to grant recognition or having the Legislature grant blanket recognition to historically
recognized Abenaki tribes in the state.
Committee Chairman Vincent Illuzzi, R-Essex/Orleans, said based on Friday's testimony the
committee will consider whether changes should be made to the commission to better include the
interests of all bands.
Another possibility, he said, is to give recognition authority to an impartial panel modeled after the
Public Service Board's oversight of energy issues. Illuzzi said the committee will make a decision by
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