Committee Hearing Next Week On Native Recognition Amendment
Written by Jedd Kettler
Thursday, 07 February 2008
MONTPELIER: Draft legislation to amend Vermont's Abenaki recognition law will get its first
Statehouse vetting before the Senate Economic Development Committee next week.
Sen. Vince Illuzzi (R-Essex-Orleans Counties, Richford, Montgomery), a strong champion of the
original recognition law and Chairman of the Senate committee, will hold the first hearing on the
amendment Friday, Feb. 15, at 9 a.m. in Room 27 of the Statehouse.
The amendment, to be introduced as a committee bill, seeks to close a gap which federal officials
have said leaves Vermont's Abenaki artists vulnerable to violations of federal law. It lays out
procedures and criteria for tribes and bands seeking State recognition. Such recognition would
legally allow members to sell their arts and crafts as Native-made under federal law, something
they cannot do now.
A handful of Abenaki, in-cluding Mark Mitchell, Chairman of the Vermont Commission on Native
American Affairs (VCNAA), Missisquoi Abenaki Nation Chief April St. Francis-Merrill, and Johnson
State Humanities Chair, filmmaker, and historian Fred Wiseman, will testify.
Mitchell said this week that the original State bill, S.117, signed in May 2006, was a "crucial first
step" to recognize Abenaki and other Native Americans in Vermont. More needs to be done to
ensure the original intent of the law is protected, though.
"The survival of the Abenaki Nation in particular depends on truth, clarity and authority from its
advocates," said Mitchell.
Illuzzi's version of the amendment retains much of the original language proposed by the VNCAA at
the end of November, creating an application process and spelling out detailed criteria for
determining State tribal recognition.
Unlike the VCNAA's proposal, however, Illuzzi's amendment does not give the Commission
authority to make such determinations on its own. Instead the current proposal would have the
VCNAA oversee tribal applications and determine whether they meet the criteria, before making a
recommendation to the general assembly.
Because of the question of VCNAA authority, Mitchell said some have asked if he and the
commission are essentially seeking power.
"My response is only that the Commission wants a process," said Mitchell.
The federal Indian Arts and Crafts Act of 1990 - a truth in advertising law meant to protect Native
artists in the marketplace - requires artists have membership, or non-member status, in a formally
recognized Native group before labeling their work as Native- or American Indian-made.
The State Legislature already has the authority to grant the required tribal recognition, but there is
no clear application process or criteria.
Lawmakers "would need to either exercise that right or vest this Commission (with it), for an Indian
to be protected," Mitchell said.
Some - including some lawmakers who backed S.117 - believed the original law was meant to give
this authority to the VCNAA.
The current State laws reads in part: "The commission shall have the authority to assist Native
American tribal councils, organizations, and individuals to ... permit the creation, display, and sale
of Native American arts and crafts and legally label them ... as provided in (federal Native arts