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2011 is the year! No Abenaki Left Behind!

January 20, 2011

Abenaki turn to Vermont Legislature for recognition

Chief Don Stevens (right) of the Nulhegan band of Abenaki speaks at the Statehouse in Montpelier on Wednesday as Chief Roger Longtoe Sheehan of the Elnu Abenaki listens. A state panel is asking the Legislature to recognize the two Abenaki tribes.

GLENN RUSSELL, Free Press

Chief Don Stevens (right) of the Nulhegan band of Abenaki speaks at the Statehouse in Montpelier on Wednesday as Chief Roger Longtoe Sheehan of the Elnu Abenaki listens. A state panel is asking the Legislature to recognize the two Abenaki tribes.

BY TERRI HALLENBECK, FREE PRESS STAFF WRITER • THURSDAY, JANUARY 20, 2011

MONTPELIER — Two Vermont Abenaki tribes are ready to have the state Legislature decide whether to grant them official recognition, and two more appear headed that way under new rules the tribes hope will end a long and frustrating process.

The Nulhegan band based in Brownington and the Elnu based in Jamaica won the recommendation of the Vermont Commission on Native American Affairs, which has turned the applications to legislators.

“We are finally reaching the apex,” commission Chairman Luke Willard said Wednesday at a Statehouse news conference announcing the applications. “I do believe 2011 is the year.”

“This gives us our identity,” said Don Stevens of Shelburne, chief of the Nulhegan band.

The bands are seeking official state recognition they say will allow members to apply for scholarships set aside for American Indians and to meet federal rules for selling arts and crafts as native-made. Legislators established this new process for recognition last year.

Two more Abenaki bands aren’t far behind in seeking recognition.

The Koasek of the Koas based in Newbury won the commission’s recommendation, and the state’s largest band, the Missisquoi, filed its application with the commission Wednesday afternoon. The commission will prepare a report and forward it to the Legislature on the Koasek and will appoint a panel of experts to review the Missisquoi application, Willard said.

April St. Francis Merrill, chief of the Missisquoi Abenaki based in Swanton, handed out bound copies of the application to commission members. For her, it was an emotional moment. Wednesday would have been her father’s 76th birthday, she said. Homer St. Francis was the fiery longtime chief of the Missisquoi band who fought for state and federal recognition. He died in 2001.

“If it weren’t for my father, none of this would be happening,” Merrill said of the state recognition effort.

Efforts during the past 17 years to attain state recognition have run into repeated roadblocks. Abenaki were granted recognition in 1976 only to have it rescinded the next year over fears that it would lead to federal recognition and land claims. Legislation in 2006 simply granting overall recognition failed to meet federal guidelines for recognition.

That led lawmakers last year, through tenuous negotiations, to set up a new process by which bands would apply to the commission for recognition with detailed information about the bands’ members and links to Vermont. Three outside scholars then review the information and decide whether it meets specific criteria. The commission then decides whether to recommend recognition to the Legislature. Lawmakers then vote whether to grant the band recognition.

The law specifies that recognition does not allow the bands to make land claims and establish casinos, as American Indians have done in other states.

Although four bands acted relatively quickly to seek recognition, handing over tribal information for public perusal also gave members pause. Vermont Abenaki long have been wary of making the names of their members public.

In the late 1920s, Vermont Abenaki were subjected to a state-sponsored eugenics campaign that promoted the sterilization of Abenaki as an undesirable population, and for tribal members to deny their heritage.

Mistrust also runs strong among bands of American Indians, some challenging the authenticity and motives of others, with malicious comments spread on the Internet.

The Missisquoi withdrew an application for recognition in the 1980s rather than publicly list its members, Merrill said, but she hopes times have changed, and the information won’t be used against anyone.

Merrill said she had mixed feelings as she submitted her band’s application Wednesday. “We’ve been through this process and had it taken away so many times,” she said, but she added, “We have a good feeling about it.”

Stevens, a former member of the Missisquoi band who joined the Nulhegan after research showed his family had roots there, said receiving recognition will be worth it. He pointed to a silver bracelet on his arm made by a member of his tribe who would be able to sell such jewelry legally as Abenaki-made — likely earning a higher price and generating more demand — if the band earns recognition.

“This process has been bittersweet, because we’re the only people on the face of the earth that have to prove who we are,” Stevens said.

Contact Terri Hallenbeck at 651-4887 or thallenbeck@burlingtonfreepress.com. To have Free Press headlines delivered free to your e-mail, sign up at burlingtonfreepress.com/newsletters.

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