Vermont grants public recognition to 2 Abenaki tribes

‘Turning point’ in legacy stained by eugenics law

By Lisa Rathke
Associated Press / April 23, 2011

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MONTPELIER — Years after the first Abenaki Indians sought to be recognized publicly in Vermont, the state yesterday granted recognition to two tribes: the Elnu Abenaki, based in Windham County, and the Nulhegan Band of the Coosuk Abenaki Nation in northeastern Vermont.

Governor Peter Shumlin signed the bills yesterday, a step that could allow the tribes to sell their crafts as Indian-made and seek federal education grants but means much more.

“Today we have stepped out of the darkness and into the light,’’ said Don Stevens, of Shelburne, chief of the Nulhegan Band, who along with others later celebrated with drumming on the State House steps.

At least 1,700 Vermont residents say they are direct descendants of the Western Abenaki tribes that inhabited all of Vermont and New Hampshire and parts of Maine, Quebec, and New York for hundreds of years before the arrival of Europeans, according to a Vermont law that set up a process for state recognition that passed in 2010.

They include the Missisquoi and Cowasuck Abenaki who farmed the river floodplains of Vermont at least as long ago as 1100 AD, the law said.

But in the 1930s, many Vermont residents of mixed French-Canadian and Native American heritage, as well as poor, rural whites, were placed on a state-sanctioned list of “mental defectives’’ and degenerates and placed in state institutions.

Some had surgery after Governor Stanley Wilson in 1931 won enactment of a sterilization law.

“Today marks a turning point, the signing of two pieces of legislations by our governor that essentially washes away that very bad history and recognizes the culture that has been with us long before the European settlers moved to the place that we now call Vermont,’’ said state Senator Vincent Illuzzi, who has pushed for state recognition.

In signing the bills, Shumlin told a group of children surrounding him that his great-great-great-grandfather was a Native American man who could not talk about his heritage.

“So his photo stands in my living room as their tribute to an extraordinary man who could not talk about his identity and today we sign these bills so that you can be proud of yours,’’ he said.

In their applications for state recognition, the tribes met certain criteria documented by membership and records, which show they are descended from identified Vermont or regional native people, according to the Vermont Commission on Native American Affairs, which recommended that the Legislature grant recognition to the two tribes, under the new state law.

The applications were reviewed by independent scholars, the commission said. But some in the Abenaki community have questioned the process for recognition, the experts, and the authenticity of the tribes.

“Vermont legislators passed a law establishing vague criteria that most any social club could pass for recognition as an ‘Indian tribe,’ violating our rights for the sole purpose to ‘sell crafts,’ ’’ said Denise Watso of Abenaki First Nation in an email.

Illuzzi said critics have been unable to explain to him why it would hurt the state to recognize what he described as tribes “that have existed here for generations but have been required to go underground because of the eugenics movement and other anti-Indian sentiments of the past.’’

“Until they convince me otherwise I’m on board,’’ he said.

Stevens said it’s time for Abenaki people to put aside their differences and work together.

Correction: Because of an Associated Press reporting error, this story incorrectly reported that Governor Peter Shumlin said he had a relative generations ago who was a Native American. In fact, Shumlin said his daughters’ great-great-great-grandfather was a Native American.