Native American Commission Wants Recognition Authority
Burlington Free Press
By Terri Hallenbeck
Free Press Staff Writer
November 30, 2007
MONTPELIER -- The Vermont Commission on Native American Affairs proposed legislation
Thursday that would give the panel the authority to decide which tribes receive formal state
The seven-member panel will take their proposal to legislators, asking them to tweak a 2006 law
that was supposed to settle the long-thorny recognition issue. The proposal lays out a process
for how tribes or bands would apply to the commission for recognition.
"If we're going to have a commission, we should have the authority," commission Chairman Mark
The 2006 law granted Vermont Abenaki blanket state recognition but gave no one the authority
to recognize specific tribes or bands. Because of that, the law didn't satisfy federal regulations
regarding the sale of American Indian arts and crafts, which allow only people from tribes with
federal or state recognition to market their wares as native-made.
Sen. Vince Illuzzi, R-Essex/Orleans, said he would push for the changes in the upcoming
legislative session. "Giving the commission the authority makes a lot of sense," he said. "That
was the initial proposal in a previous incarnation. It was watered down in order to get the support
of the skeptics."
The state Attorney General's Office had opposed granting Abenaki state recognition for years
while the Swanton-based St. Francis/Sokoki band was seeking federal recognition. That
opposition lessened after the federal government denied the band's application, but as the 2006
state law was crafted, some legislators remained concerned that state recognition might lead to
land claims and casinos that other states have seen.
Assistant Attorney General Mike McShane said Thursday that he sees no legal barriers to
granting the commission the authority to recognize tribes. "It's certainly within the realm of the
authority of the Legislature," he said.
Commissioners pored over the proposal Thursday, working out details about how tribes would
be expected to document their ancestry in Vermont. Commissioners had considered setting a
date to which tribes would have to trace their roots, but that was a touchy subject because some
tribes can trace their history further than others. The commission dropped any mention of a
specific date in its final proposal Thursday.
Mitchell acknowledged that even if legislators amend the law as commissioners have suggested,
the path ahead is far from smooth. As commissioners fine-tuned the wording of the proposed
legislation Thursday, they repeatedly ran into nuances that were difficult to untangle.
Should those applying for recognition have to submit documentation about how the tribe or band
is governed? Some family bands don't have a formal governing procedure, Commissioner Tim
de la Bruere argued.
Commissioners who are members of a tribe would have to recuse themselves from deciding on
their tribe's application, according to the proposal, but de la Bruere questioned how the term
"member" would be defined. For example, he said, he is an Odenak citizen but not a member.
Mitchell said some of those details will be worked out during the rule-making process if the
legislation passes. "It'll be a long road," he said.
Contact Terri Hallenbeck at 651-4887 or firstname.lastname@example.org