Differing Opinions May Stall Proposed Native Recognition Amendment
Written by Jedd Kettler
Friday, 29 February 2008
The County Courier
MONTPELIER: Without some compromise, two differing proposals could well spell the end of hopes
to address concerns this year with Vermont’s current Native recognition law before the end of the
current legislative session.
The cutoff point for proposed legislation to move from one state legislative body to another -
“crossover” - is March 14.
Sen. Vince Illuzzi - who has championed State recognition for Vermont’s Abenaki in the past and
has worked this year to move forward a fix to the current State law - cautioned this week that
without compromise soon, there is little chance of legislative action to fix gaps in Vermont’s law
before the end of the biennium.
Illuzzi’s Senate Economic Development Committee will hear testimony tomorrow, Friday, Feb. 29.
The hearing starts at 10 a.m. in Room 10 of the Statehouse. Without agreement, a solution will
most likely have to wait until a future session, he said on Monday.
“What I’ve said to them is that we cannot pass a bill that upsets as many as it pleases,” Illuzzi said.
“Everybody’s got their positions and they’re well-reasoned, and I respect their positions ... Right
now, it’s up to the different groups to come to some consensus.”
One current proposal is based on the work of the Vermont Commission on Native American Affairs,
which has been reworked by Illuzzi and legislative council. This proposed amendment would
establish a process and criteria by which tribes and bands in Vermont would apply for State
recognition to allow artists and craftspeople to label their work as Native.
The other was proposed by leaders from the St. Francis/Sokoki Band of Missisquoi Abenaki and
the Koesek Traditional Band of Abenaki as an addition to the VCNAA’s proposal. In addition to the
criteria and process laid out by the VCNAA, this would recognize specifically the St. Francis/Sokoki
and the Koesek bands and grant each band two members on the VCNAA.
On Monday, Feb. 25, the VCNAA reiterated their support for the current criteria and process
amendment, but not other additions.
Commissioners wrote a letter to Illuzzi on Monday, stating, “The (VCNAA) has been working for
almost two years to figure out how S.117 can help all Abenaki people ... It is our goal to have a fair
and transparent process for all Abenaki people to follow. We do not want to be part of any bill that
will exclude people from having a choice and an opportunity to apply.”
Chief April St. Francis-Merrill of the St. Francis/Sokoki band said this week that the proposal she
and members of the Koesek band have put forward simply adds onto the VCNAA proposal by
specifically recognizing the two longest-standing bands in Native Abenaki homelands.
These groups deserve direct recognition both within the amendment and on the VCNAA, she said.
Like the St. Francis/Sokoki, the Koeseks are a group in a historical homeland - along the
Connecticut River - and they should be recognized as such, St. Francis-Merrill said.
The St. Francis band, centered in Swanton, led the fight for Abenaki rights and recognition in the
State since the late 1960s and early 1970s, long before other current bands were formed, she
“The State spent a lot of money trying to discredit the Missisquoi, and did they spend any money
discrediting any of these other groups?” St. Francis-Merrill said. “I feel the Missisquoi St.
Francis/Sokoki has already bent over backwards to document ourselves to the State. We’ve had to
prove that since we’ve been dealing with the State in the early ‘70s.”
VCNAA Chairman Mark Mitchell said this week that the Commission has worked hard to keep an
open process since beginning work on the arts and crafts recognition issue nearly two years ago.
“We support an open process for all to participate. This (VCNAA) proposal is our solution to a
complicated issue,” Mitchell said. “We’ve looked at it as an open process and it’s certainly an
important issue ... I respect everyone’s opinion and I understand their frustration ... Can the
community rally around consensus before that point?”
State recognition is distinctly different from the federal recognition that establishes a tribe as a
sovereign entity and in some cases has led to casinos in other states. There are currently no
Vermont groups seeking federal recognition.