Vermont legislature to consider recognition amendments
by: Gale Courey Toensing
February 18, 2008.
Indian Country Today
MONTPELIER, Vt. - The National Park Service recently published a regulation that encourages
concessionaires within national parks to sell genuine American Indian and Alaska Native
handcrafts that are appropriately labeled and identified as authentic. But Vermont's Indian
artists and craftspeople cannot market their work as authentic American Indian products at
national parks or anywhere else because of a flawed state recognition bill.
A state legislative committee will consider two proposals to fix S. 117, an act passed in 2006 that
granted recognition to Vermont's ''Abenaki people'' and established the Vermont Commission on
Native American Indian Affairs.
One proposal would vest the commission with the authority to recognize the state's tribes and
bands of American Indians. The other proposes a two-step process in which the commission
would process applications then send a recommendation for recognition to the legislature, which
would make the final, non-reviewable decision to accept or deny the application.
The recognition of ''Abenaki people'' fell short of the federal Arts and Crafts Act of 1990, which
requires Native artists to be from a federally recognized tribe or from an Indian group ''that has
been formally recognized as an Indian tribe by a State legislature or by a State commission ...
legislatively vested with State tribal recognition authority.''
Although S.117 cited the 1990 Federal Indian Arts and Crafts Act and appeared to vest the
commission with the authority to develop criteria for recognizing tribes and bands for the
purpose of protecting the indigenous artists under the federal law, when the commission began
developing the criteria early last year, state Attorney General William Griffin stepped in and
claimed the commission only had authority to recognize individuals, not tribes or bands.
The commission would like the legislature to vest it with the recognition authority and provide a
one-step, time-saving process, VCNAA Chairman Mark Mitchell, Abenaki, said.
The legislature already has the authority to give state recognition to tribes and bands, Mitchell
''As chair of the commission, after 2 years I've realized the commission's established authority
simply cannot be achieved unless the state recognizes its Native residents - and it doesn't,''
The state's intransigence to recognize its Native population has far reaching effects.
''The arts and crafts issue was what brought this to the forefront, but the reality is the attorney
general's interpretation of S. 117 has hampered attempts to achieve federal assistance for
bolstering Native businesses, community employment opportunities, cultural opportunities,
securing social services, housing help and health care and care for the elders. It's all hampered
by not being able to identify Native communities,'' Mitchell said.
What is the point of the commission if the legislature won't exercise its authority to recognize the
state's Indian tribes and bands, but won't vest that authority in the commission?
''Well, I suppose it could be considered symbolic,'' Mitchell said. Assistant Attorney General Mike
McShane told Indian Country Today that the attorney general's office now recognizes that S.
117's language was inadequate.
''Clearly, there is a shortcoming in the legislation passed and the way to fix that would seem to
be to add some designation of tribes or groups or bands made by the state. The attorney
general's office helped draft a bill that said the commission would make a recommendation and
the legislature would either accept or reject it. That's what we were comfortable with,'' McShane
said. He acknowledged that the federal law allows either a state legislature or a state
commission to recognize tribes. When asked if the attorney general has any objection to vesting
the commission with the recognition authority, McShane said, ''We haven't specifically been
asked that question.''
When pressed, however, McShane said, ''I think we would say this is a policy decision for the
legislature and there isn't a legal problem going either way. It's up to the legislature to decide
whether the legislature wants to do it or have the commission do it.''
Republican State Sen. Vincent Illuzzi, the chair of the Senate committee on Economic
Development and a supporter of state recognition for Vermont's Abenaki tribes and bands,
scheduled a meeting for Feb. 15 where both proposals could be heard and testimony could be
lluzzi said the bill that passed in 2006 had been so altered from the time it was first drafted that
''It was a shell of itself. There's a lot of misinformation and bias against the Abenakis. I don't
know why or where it's coming from. It's very discouraging at times. Some people have been led
to think this is going to lead to gaming and Indian reservations and casinos, which is dead
wrong, but once these people have these ideas in their heads - and the opponents who are
spreading this don't take the time to do the research - it's hard to get people on track,'' Illuzzi