Abenaki Commission looks at tribal recognition, sets “broad, ambitious” agenda
Tena Starr, November 24, 2010
Note: This story first appeared in the Barton Chronicle.
NEWPORT — “When I was a kid, I was taught that the Abenaki were hunter-gatherers,” said Luke
Willard of Brownington. “The key word being ‘were.’ I was taught absolutely nothing about
contemporary Indians. I was taught about dead Indians.”
Today, he said, his children are being taught exactly the same thing.
In September, Mr. Willard became the chairman of the Vermont Commission on Native American
Affairs and is now in a position to do something about it. He spoke in Newport at a recent meeting of
the nine-member commission at the Goodrich Memorial Library.
Although discussion went much further, one of the main purposes of the meeting was to listen to
concerns and questions about the process of tribal recognition in Vermont.
A new law set up a state tribal recognition process, revised the make-up of the Commission on
Native American Affairs, and increased the number of members on the commission from seven to
The state Legislature, along with independent scholars, will ultimately decide if a tribe will be
recognized by the state. Each group must meet a set of nine criteria.
The Commission on Native American Affairs will implement the new recognition process.
In addition to acknowledging their heritage, state recognition would allow Native Americans in
Vermont who make and sell traditional crafts to label them as Indian- or Native American-made.
Mr. Willard views the commission’s role as broad and ambitious. The commission’s agenda included
improving educational curriculum materials on Native American heritage and culture, the
development of a teacher’s resource guide, and plans to discuss federal Title VII Indian education
funding. Qualifying school districts could receive $400 for each child.
The Orleans-Essex North Supervisory Union with its 13 schools, would need 130 Native American
children to qualify, Mr. Willard said. If it did, it would receive $52,000. A parent committee, following
federal guidelines, would decide how to spend that money, he said.
“I’d love to hear the argument that we don’t want our federal tax dollars back,” he said.
And the educational opportunity wouldn’t just be for Native children, he said. It would broaden the
cultural knowledge of all students.
In an interview, Mr. Willard said he’s convinced that at least 5 to 10 percent of Northeast Kingdom
schoolchildren have Indian blood. He’s not quite sure how the commission would determine that, but
he said it will try.
Until last week, the commission had held two meetings, both in Montpelier. They were sparsely
attended. The meeting in Newport was standing room only.
“The main purpose of today is to hear from the people who have shown up,” Mr. Willard said,
speaking to the 40 or so who had.
He heard plenty — stories about racism, pleas for unity among the various tribes in the state, which
have a history of bickering and infighting, requests for better education about Native American
heritage, varying opinions about what defines an Abenaki, and compliments on this commission’s
makeup and energy. Gov. Jim Douglas appointed all nine members in September.
The meeting and potluck lunch started with a song, accompanied by drumming, by Roger Longtoe
Sheehan, chief of the Elnu Abenaki in southern Vermont. The song was a traditional “calling in”
song from the Wabenaki, and meant to call people in to gather together, he said. A number of
people joined in the singing.
It was quickly apparent when the meeting started that some aren’t happy with the state’s recognition
process. Nancy Millette Doucet, chief of the Loasek Abenaki of the Koas, in the Newbury region,
said that being required to hand over tribal rolls and records is a violation of people’s privacy.
“When an application comes to us for citizenship it contains sensitive materials,” she said.
Mr. Willard said he’s tried to keep personal information as private as possible. “The unfortunate
thing is that the Abenaki do have their rolls smeared on the Internet for everyone to see,” he said.
“But we will be the first to stand up and take it.”
Lorraine Liberty Curtis, a member of the Clan of the Hawk based in Evansville, said she doesn’t
know if that clan will seek recognition or not. She said the Clan of the Hawk was founded 20 years
“I don’t know, personally, what I would gain by being recognized,” she said. “I consider myself a
descendent of an Abenaki. I don’t believe there’s a full-blooded Abenaki left in Vermont.”
It would be hard to find a full-blooded anyone, be they Indian, black, white, said Mr. Longtoe
“It’s what you consider yourself culturally. That’s what makes an Abenaki today.”
“I think it’s pretty well established that blood quotas are a form of genocide,” Mr. Willard said.
Carol Irons of Albany wondered if there is a way to win recognition if a person does not want to be
connected with a certain tribe.
“We aren’t all comfortable with being affiliated, because of the politics,” she said. “I understand
there’s an effort to keep wannabes out, but you can get carried away with that.”
Under the law, tribes, not individuals, are recognized, Mr. Willard said.
Axie Noyes from Plainfield brought up the sad era in Vermont history when “dark-skinned” people,
or those with supposed mental or physical defects, were often sterilized without their consent in an
attempt to eliminate their descendants. Children were removed from families. The Abenaki and
others often went into “hiding,” pretending they were French.
“There’s a reason why there’s no full-blooded Abenaki,” Ms. Noyes said. “If you were full-blooded,
you weren’t long for this world. “The fact that we’re sitting here today talking about recognition is the