Monday, October 29, 2007
Abenaki Wary Of New Legislation
Published: Friday, October 26, 2007
By Terri Hallenbeck
Free Press Staff Writer
MONTPELIER -- Members of various bands of Abenaki American Indians raised concerns
Thursday that parts of proposed legislation intended to repair last year's Abenaki recognition law
would leave them out in the cold.
The Vermont Commission on Native American Affairs heard from about a dozen people at a public
hearing as they try to craft an amendment to a law passed in 2006. That law granted Abenaki
long-sought state recognition, but was worded so broadly that it ended up failing to accomplish
one of its main goals: allowing Vermont Abenaki to meet federal rules for selling their arts and
crafts as native-made.
A long and rocky route to winning the 2006 law is not getting any smoother, as testimony Thursday
showed the commission will have to navigate through layers of mistrust between tribes and toward
the state in finding a solution that has proved evasive for decades.
"We cannot assume all state entities have our best interests as a nation at heart," said Fred
Wiseman, a humanities professor at Johnson State College who worked on the 2006 legislation
that now disappoints him. Wiseman is also tribal historian of the St. Francis/Sokoki Band of the
Abenaki Nation of Missisquoi, but said he wasn't representing the band at the hearing.
The panel is faced with trying to figure out who should grant recognition to specific bands and what
the criteria should be for granting that recognition. Although the purpose of the revision is to help
Abenaki artisans market their work, the notion of recognizing tribes goes much deeper for many
Be wary of forcing bands to trace their heritage or location centuries into the past, Vera Longtoe
Sheehan of Westminster, a member of the Elnu, a sub-band of the Cowasuck Abenaki, told the
"It really wasn't until the last 20 years or so that we've been coming out in public together," she
said. "Some families are more well-documented than others."
Others echoed her in saying that many Abenaki in Vermont hid their heritage because of
discrimination they faced and therefore might have a hard time proving that a majority of members
have lived in a certain region for a certain length of time.
The proposed legislation suggests requiring tribes that want state recognition to prove they can
trace continuous history to a certain date. The commission hadn't settled on a date, as that is a
highly sensitive topic. Some tribes in Vermont can trace their heritage back centuries, others
cannot. The federal government turned the Missisquoi band down for recognition partly over the
issue of continuous presence.
Wiseman urged the commission not to include a date. He said the commission should be the entity
that grants recognition and should not hamstring its decisions by setting dates in law.
A draft of the legislation would grant the Legislature the final authority to recognize tribes.
Wiseman said that would be a mistake. "You've got to protect your own authority, your own
decision-making, from end-arounds that are going to come," he said.
The 2006 legislation would have given the commission that authority at one time, but was changed
during the legislative process.
While speakers were wary of the state, some were also mistrustful of other tribes.
Sheehan suggested that members of the Odanak band not be allowed to determine other tribes'
eligibility for recognition. The Odanak have federal recognition from Canada, and some fear that
members would be disinclined to allow more artisans to compete with them. Wiseman also cited
past anti-Missisquoi statements by Odanaks as a root of mistrust.
The Missisquoi, the best-known tribe in the state, didn't submit testimony. Wiseman said tribal
leaders are unhappy with the makeup of the commission. Commission member Don Stevens, a
member of the tribe, said he doesn't represent the tribe, although its leaders are following the
Commission Chairman Mark Mitchell said the commission will meet Nov. 29 to complete wording of
proposed legislation, then seek a sponsor in the Legislature, where several members have vowed
to help change the law.
Contact Terri Hallenbeck at 651-4887 or email@example.com