March 12th, 2010
The outcome was never in doubt and the vote was unanimous. Still, after it was cast, the
committee members gave themselves a quiet round of applause. They thought they’d done
Maybe they had, even though it isn’t clear whether the bill they reported out last week will become
law, and even if it does, its direct, material, impact will be quite limited.
It’s the indirect, not-so-material impact that might be historic.
The bill was S-222, “An act relating to recognition of Abenaki bands and groups as tribes.”
Considering that a four-year-old statute (S.117, signed into law May 3, 2006) already recognized
the Abenaki and other Native Americans living in the state as a “minority population” it’s
reasonable to ask why the new bill is necessary at all, much less why it arouses enthusiasm.
But in the view of the Abenaki and their supporters, notably Sens. Vincent Illuzzi, a Derby
Republican, and Hinda Miller, a Burlington Democrat, there were two flaws in the earlier law. One is
very practical: the language didn’t meet the federal requirements to qualify the works of Abenaki
artists and craftspeople as “Native American.” The designation can bring higher prices. Besides,
being recognized as a minority group isn’t the same as being recognized as a tribe. This year’s bill
grants formal recognition as tribes to the state’s four Abenaki bands – the St. Francis Sokoki Band
in the Swanton area ;the Koasek Traditional Band around Newbury; the Nulhegan Band of the
Northeast Kingdom; the ELNU Abenaki Tribe in southern Vermont.
If the law passes, each of these bands will be empowered to “refer to itself as a recognized tribe,”
according to the bill.
Actual recognition as a tribe is one of the federal Bureau of Indian Affairs requirements for the
“Native American” arts and crafts designations. But to the Abenaki, the new bill may be less
important for what it would officially do for them than for what it would effectively say to them: You
are here. And you are here not just as individual members of “a minority population,” but as
The long-term social and political consequences of that statement are uncertain, and their benefits
open to debate. There are, after all, several other “minority populations” in Vermont, none of which
get a similar official designation.
On the other hand, the Abenaki were here first, perhaps since as early as 1100. Unlike the other
minorities (or the majority, for that matter) some of whom came here because they were
systematically mistreated elsewhere, the Abenaki were systematically mistreated right here in
Vermont, so mistreated that at one point they were all but obliterated.
Or, in the view of some scholars, actually were obliterated, at least ceasing to exist as tribe within
Vermont’s borders. Such was the conclusion of a report issued by the Vermont Attorney General’s
office in 2002, when one of the Abenaki bands petitioned for tribal recognition from the federal
In a summary of the report it filed with the Bureau of Indian Affairs, the Attorney General’s office
noted that “around the time of the American Revolution, ((Abenaki) retreated to (their) home base
in Quebec. Then, over the next two hundred years, there were very few observations of Indians in
Vermont, and these were mostly sightings of visiting Indians.” In the 19th Century, the report said,
the ancestors of the petitioners “were indistinguishable from the general population in Vermont,”
and that while some “appear in the census records…they are not listed as Indian.”
Assistant Attorney General Michael McShane said these comments were made solely in the
context of the specific guidelines for federal recognition, and did not mean that state officials were
denying the existence of the Abenaki now or in the past.
“The question is what do you use for the definition of a tribe,” McShane said. “The Federal
Government says it has to have been an autonomous and existing entity from colonial times to the
present in an organizational sense. That they failed to prove. But nobody’s saying there aren’t
people who live in Vermont who have claimed, probably legitimately, Native American ancestry.”
The distinction seems to make sense in law, especially to officials who worry that federal
designation could lead to gambling casinos and land claims as has been true in other states. But
some Abenaki were simply insulted.
“They said the Abenakis were genetic, political, and cultural fakes,” said Fred Wiseman, a Johnson
State College professor and Abenaki activist. Though not the message state officials intended, it
seems to have been the one many Abenaki heard, and their resentment was intensified by turmoil
in the state’s Commission on Native American Affairs, which went through three directors in four
Whether there has been a continuing Abenaki community in Vermont could be one of those
questions that can never be conclusively answered. That 2002 Attorney General’s report was
based on standard historical research, which failed to find documentation that such a community
existed. So perhaps it didn’t. Or maybe, even before the discredited “eugenics” movement of the
1920s victimized so many Indians, the Abenaki were hiding signs of their identity, to the point of not
telling Census Bureau agents that they were Indians.
It’s happened before. In 15th Century Spain, Jews converted to avoid getting burned at the stake,
lived outwardly Christian lives, but secretly observed Jewish rituals at home.
Whatever happened in the past, no one doubts that there are now several thousand Vermonters
who have some Abenaki ancestry and who consider themselves Abenaki. That could explain why
there was no opposition when the Senate Committee on Economic Development, Housing, and
General Affairs approved the bill last week.
But there are still complications, based on the continuing worry that something in the bill might
provide a pathway for federal recognition of a Vermont tribe. McShane said he asked the
committee to remove two sentences that he feared might “open up the whole question of federal
The committee did not comply.
“It’s his (McShane’s) job to worry,” said Hinda Miller, the bill’s chief sponsor. “We appreciate him
being the watchdog. We did our own research. We don’t think this will be a real problem.”
Miller and Mark Mitchell of Barnet, an Abenaki and a former head of the Native American
Commission, both said it would be all but impossible for any Abenaki band to meet the criteria for
federal recognition., and that, at any rate the state could block Indian gambling casinos or land
McShane was not so sure.
“You get into this whole very complicated issue,” he said. “States may be able to regulate some of
it. This defies easy answers.”
Miller said the bill would probably be on the Senate calendar today (Friday). There is a companion
measure in the House (H. 124, sponsored by Rep. Michel Consejo of Sheldon Springs.
Whatever happens, the Abenaki will once again be defined by others. “Indians don’t have the right
to self-identify,” Fred Wiseman noted. “We have to be recognized by white people.”