Public comment given on Native recognition Amendment
Written by Jedd Kettler
Wednesday, 31 October 2007
The Country Courier
MONTPELIER: The Vermont Commission on Native American Affairs heard from Abenaki from
around the region Thursday, Oct. 25, about amending Vermont’s Native recognition law, S.117.
The amendment aims to rectify incompatibilities with federal Indian Arts and Crafts laws, which
came to light in fall and winter 2006. S.117 was signed into law in May 2006. Allowing Native arts
labeling by Vermont’s Abenaki was among several key goals.
Last week, the VCNAA took public testimony and tried to clear up some misunderstandings about
the amendment as currently proposed. The commission plans to finalize language at its next
scheduled meeting on Nov. 29, in hopes of having an amendment proposal ready for the coming
The amendment aims primarily at establishing a process by which bands and tribes could be
recognized in Vermont. Member artisans of recognized groups would legally be allowed to label
their work as Native-made.
Among concerns raised by the dozen individuals who testified - and some 10 more who sent
comments via e-mail - were setting historic dates for formation of tribal groups, language
specifying geographical membership requirements, and whether the VCNAA should be vested with
the authority to make final determinations.
The VCNAA has worked since last fall to resolve Native art labeling issues in the State law as
The current draft of the amendment leaves the final authority to grant recognition in the hands of
the State Legislature. The VCNAA would be responsible for vetting band applications and making
recommendations to the Legislature.
The proposed language does not ask for genealogy and other specific information on individual
members, but looks at the applicant group as an entity.
“We’re only looking at tribes ... We’re only talking about an entity that’s tied to the land - that
tradition,” said VCNAA commissioner Don Stevens. “We are not determining who is Abenaki ... It’s
up to the tribe to recognize their people.”
Several who spoke said they feared that their bands might be unfairly excluded in the language as
currently written, particularly because of language that requires a majority of members to reside in
The Abenaki people have traditionally been scattered across large regions that are not tied to
state borders, said Nancy Millett, of the Cowasuck Traditional Band of Abenaki, historically
centered in Newbury and Haverhill, N.H. Regardless of where members live, they remain tied to
their Abenaki heritage, she said.
“Historically we didn’t have any of these boundaries ... We didn’t put those borders in,” she told
Commissioners responded that they are still limited by these boundaries, but the goal is not to limit
“This Commission has to be careful. There has to be some sort of a balance and it’s difficult. This
Commission cannot fight that battle for the people of New Hampshire,” Mitchell said.
“We’re basically trying to tie people to the homeland ... We can only deal with the people in
Vermont,” Stevens said.
Some of the most specific and concrete suggestions offered last week came from Fred Wiseman, a
Johnson State College Professor of Humanities, who served on the previous Governor’s
Commission on Native Affairs until last year.
Wiseman is also a member of the Missisquoi Abenaki Tribal Council, but he said he was testifying
as an individual, not a representative of his band. Wiseman was the only member of the Swanton-
based band to testify last week.
Outlining specific changes to language in the amendment to ensure inclusiveness and protection
of the spirit of S.117, Wiseman also stressed that the VCNAA should include language that would
specifically vest the VCNAA with authority to recognize bands.
Such authority was originally spelled out in S.117 but was stripped near the end of the legislative
“The authority that was gutted ... (by) a seven word change,” Wiseman said.
He offered this perspective as a reason to carefully consider word changes and also not to
concede the Commission’s role too easily.
“The goal is to keep your power here ... We can’t assume that all State entities have our best
interests at heart,” Wiseman said. “You need to protect your own plenary authority once it goes
out into the Legislature ... I would suggest you think very seriously about giving up your plenary
Mitchell agreed that those last minute changes to S.117 created the current problem. He added
that the changes were made without consulting the federal Native arts officials, despite the fact
that lawmakers were told such contact had been made.
“The unfortunate part is they never called the Indian Arts and Crafts Board,” Mitchell said.
As for giving authority to recognize bands to the VCNAA, Mitchell and others are hesitant. While
the VCNAA suggested an amendment in March which would have given arts and crafts authority to
the VCNAA, he and others have since said they want to leave the option up to legislators.
“This Commission would certainly accept any authority,” Mitchell said.
Wiseman responded, “I just want you to protect any authority you’ve got.”
Wiseman also stressed the importance of widespread testimony from Abenaki throughout Vermont
when such an amendment goes before lawmakers.