Process Proposed For Recognizing Tribes
By Lisa Rathke Associated Press Writer
February 11, 2008
MONTPELIER, Vt.—A legislative committee will consider a process for recognizing tribes as Native
American, a fix to a 2006 law that identified the Abenaki in Vermont but failed to allow them to label
their crafts as Indian made, as intended.
Under the proposed amendment, the state Commission on Native American Affairs would
recommend to the Legislature whether to recognize a state tribe as Native American and the
General Assembly would have the final say.
But not everyone is satisfied.
The Commission on Native American Affairs had wanted the Legislature to vest the authority to
recognize tribes to it. Leaving the decision to the Legislature only prolongs the process, said
Commission Chairman Mark Mitchell of Barnet.
"We're already two years into a bill that has proven to be kind of more ineffective than effective,
and more symbolic than anything else," Mitchell said.
The 2006 state law recognized the Abenaki as a minority population in Vermont but didn't establish
a way to recognize bands or tribes. Mitchell had said the law conflicted with a federal law designed
to prevent the sale of fraudulent American Indian art because it didn't give the commission the
authority to recognize tribes.
"All it did was say, yes, Abenakis lived here once in the past. It didn't really accomplish much," said
Vincent Illuzzi, R-Essex-Orleans, chairman of the Senate committee on Economic Development,
Housing & General Affairs, which will take testimony on the issue Friday.
Recognition is important not only to the sale of crafts but for eligibility to federal programs, such as
loans, grants and scholarships, Illuzzi said. The proposal establishes a process and criteria for the
commission to follow in judging applicants.
Mitchell said the bill is essentially what a summer study committee, of which he and the governor's
legal counsel and an assistant attorney general were members, recommended.
Suzanne Young, the governor's legal counsel, and Deputy Attorney General Bill Griffin did not
immediately return phone calls seeking comment.
April Rushlow Merrill, chief of the Swanton/St. Albans Abenaki Tribe, which had sought but failed to
get federal recognition, said she will testify Friday against the proposal.
"From what I can read they're going to determine who is and who isn't in the tribe. And I don't feel
that the commission nor the Legislature have that right," she said. "That commission doesn't
represent me or my tribe and I'm going to tell them that when I go down to Montpelier."
She said she knows Abenaki artisans who don't have any problem labeling their crafts as Indian
"They have not been bothered by the federal government and they don't know what the big deal
is," she said.