Future Of Recognition Amendment Depends On Sponsorship
Written by Contributor
Thursday, 06 December 2007
MONTPELIER: With a proposal to amend Vermont’s Native recognition bill finalized last week, the
Vermont Commission on Native American Affairs is now seeking sponsorship for legislative action
in the coming session.
The changes aim to bring S.117, the state recognition law, in line with federal laws for allowing
Native artisans and craftspeople to label their work as Native-made.
Federal law requires that specific tribes or bands be formally recognized by a state legislature or
Native commission before members can label their work. S.117 passed with more general
language, acknowledging the existence of Vermont’s Abenaki people, but not recognizing specific
Native groups. There is also currently no established process or criteria for such recognition.
One pivotal advocate of S.117’s original passage, Sen. Vince Illuzzi (R-Essex-Orleans District),
said this week such an amendment would address these issues, which didn’t survive the 2006
legislative process. He will introduce the proposal in the Senate Committee on Economic
Development, Housing and General Affairs, which he chairs.
“They rightfully requested some substantive changes,” Illuzzi told the County Courier. “We’ll try to
introduce it as a committee bill.”
Another important sponsor in 2006, Sen. Diane Snelling (R-Chittenden District), said establishing
the recognition process is an important step, but she cautioned that it may be a difficult one for
several reasons: disagreement - even among the state’s Abenaki - about criteria, as well as the
question of who is given final authority to recognize tribes and bands.
“It’s a very hard step,” Snelling said. “I think it is about whether everyone in the state of Vermont
wants to come together ... (and say) here’s how we want to go forward on this. But people will have
to put aside past differences.”
Much of the three-page proposal, which the VCNAA finalized at its Thursday, Nov. 29 meeting,
focuses on the process and criteria by which applicant tribes and bands would seek recognition for
arts and crafts purposes.
The single sentence which begins the proposal, though, is likely to be just as central to the coming
discussion: “Commission shall have the authority, on behalf of the State of Vermont, to formally
recognize tribes and bands.”
This could be a hurdle in the Legislature, said Snelling.
“I think it’s going to be very difficult to get the State to the point of saying, ‘Yes, we’ll let this
Commission recognize (tribes)’ ... even for the purposes of arts and crafts,” Snelling said.
In an earlier version of the amendment, the Commission would have been responsible for
reviewing tribal and band applications, and then making recommendations to the Legis-lature.
The VCNAA changed that language in response to public input last month, however.
Commissioner Tim de la Bruere abstained from voting on the amendment last week, suggesting
the change would hurt chances for gaining legislative sponsorship.
Earlier drafts of S.117 included this same authority for the commission, and could have
accomplished the same goal earlier, said Illuzzi and Fred Wiseman, a professor of humanities at
Johnson State College, filmmaker, and curator of Swanton’s Abenaki Tribal Museum.
Illuzzi pointed out that because of these last minutes changes, taking this authority out, he declined
to speak at the May 2006 signing ceremony on the Statehouse steps.
“The reason I didn’t speak is that I felt the bill had been watered down ... and in effect, this (need
for the amendment) confirms that,” Illuzzi said.
Still, Illuzzi did not oppose the altered version of S.117 that passed because it was an important
“It was a symbolic gesture,” he said.
Wiseman said legislative counsel assured supporters that federal Indian Arts and Crafts officials
had said the new wording would meet the same goals. The last minute changes, though, left Native
artisans without the ability to label their works under federal law.
“The wording was changed and weakened at the last minute, and both Illuzzi and I were told (by
legislative counsel) that it would work,” Wiseman said.
After reading the VCNAA draft on Monday, Wiseman said the proposal lays out a detailed
recognition process and criteria. While there will still likely be issues to address, Wiseman is
encouraged that the Commission really listened to comments and spent time with the proposal.
“It seems as though they took a lot of care and listened to everybody’s concerns,” Wiseman said.
Asked what kind of reception he thinks the issue will receive in Montpelier as the session restarts,
Illuzzi said, “Most of the same cast of characters is there.”
He said many of the same issues will need to be touched on to assuage unfounded fears about
land claims and casinos.
Illuzzi stressed that the process for recognizing specific Native groups in the context of State
recognition does not open the State up to such questions.
“I have assured myself that this is not going to lead to the negative consequences,” Illuzzi said.
Wiseman said it will be important that the Abenaki community be involved and attentive when
discussions on the amendment occur.
“We have to get ... this amendment put through the Legislature on a fast track as much as
possible,” he said. “There will have to be a lot of good communication between the commissioners
and the legislators.”