Battle for Recognition Fair Game
December 22, 2010
At least three of Vermont’s Native American tribes will seek state recognition from the legislature
next year in hopes of boosting their chances of receiving a federal designation to sell handmade
goods as “official” Native American wares. The official stamp would also allow Vermont’s American
Indians to access federal education funds.
A bill designed to grant recognition to select tribes was nixed last year due to infighting between
Abenaki and non-Abenaki, as well as disputes within the Abenaki community itself. Lawmakers took
sides, too, in these generations-old battles.
Rather than grant recognition, lawmakers established nine hoops, er, criteria a tribe must meet to
be legit in the eyes of the legislature. It also called for all new appointments to the nine-member
Vermont Commission on Native American Affairs. The VCNAA, along with several outside scholars,
has the task of reviewing each recognition request. If VCNAA gives the OK, requests are forwarded
to the House General, Housing and Military Affairs Committee for review. Whatever it recommends
goes to a full-floor vote.
So far, three tribes have applied: Nulhegan, Koasek and Elnu. Their applications are under review
and likely will be ready for a legislative vote this coming session, said VCNAA’s new chairman, Luke
Willard, the former chief of the Nulhegan Tribe in the Northeast Kingdom. Others tribes are still
preparing applications, but those might not be ready in time for a vote in 2011.
Some Abenaki allies have taken the unusual step of asking House Speaker Shap Smith to ban one
lawmaker in particular — Rep. Kesha Ram (D-Burlington) — from the review process. Why? The
perception is that Ram played a key role in derailing last year’s recognition effort at the 11th hour.
Ram tells “Fair Game” she has no intention of stepping down from the House General, Housing and
Military Affairs Committee.
“I am hurt by the news of this letter, however, the Abenaki community is not monolithic,” said Ram.
“Focusing on the role of one legislator negates the thoughtful and complex engagement of our
entire legislative body in passing laws that best serve our state.”
A former VCNAA member believes the “new process” is stacked in favor of the Abenaki and the
various tribes thought to be aligned with them.
“The current commission does not represent a broad spectrum of native peoples in the state of
Vermont,” notes former VCNAA commissioner Brad Barrett. “It was not supposed to be slanted
toward the ‘alliance’ tribes, and now it is.”
Willard hopes to smooth out past problems by proving the commission can work with all tribes and
break free of past squabbles.
“I’m not interested in getting involved in a long, drawn-out process,” said Willard. “This review
process was set up to avoid that.”