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Abenaki Recognition… The Big Picture

February 14, 2011

State Recognition of the Abenaki… The Big Picture
by Luke A. Willard, Chairman
Vermont Commission on Native American Affairs

Luke Willard

Luke Willard

It is important to understand the differences between Federal Recognition and State Recognition and it is even more important to understand that Vermont is NOT dealing with Federal Recognition. Federal Recognition means that the United States government recognizes the right of an Indian tribe to exist as a sovereign entity.  Here in Vermont, we’re dealing State Recognition.

What is State Recognition?

State Recognition is little more than a legal nod of approval from the State. I often refer to it as ‘Cultural Recognition’. It doesn’t cost Vermonters anything. Their lives won’t change. The face of Vermont won’t change. There won’t be land claims. There won’t be Indian casinos. No “treaty rights” disputes, no tobacco sales wars, no road blocks, no tax exemption, no special rights, etc.

Okay, so why do Abenaki people want State Recognition?

Good question. There are a few reasons. The first is societal. The second is legal. The third is personal.

Throughout most of our state, there is a lack of cultural awareness.  Simply put… most folks are not aware of the Abenakis who are their neighbors, co-workers, etc.  You see Indians in the news every now and then, and perhaps you’ve visited a powwow or two; but for most, it ends there. In school, we are taught very little about Native Americans and even less, or perhaps nothing, about Abenakis.  Were you ever taught anything about contemporary Indians? Were you taught about the eugenics survey of the 1920’s and sterilizations throughout the 30’s?  Were you taught about the Abenaki renaissance during the latter 20th century when Abenaki people began to publicly and politically reorganize and stand up in a desperate effort to revitalize a culture that was hanging on by threads?  Vermont state recognition will enable school districts to access funds for cultural programs, to hire tutors, and much more.  Education is the foundation of awareness and all students will benefit from it.

Currently, it is illegal for an Abenaki craftsperson or artisan to label and sell their products as ‘Abenaki Made’ or ‘Native American Made’ because the Indian Arts and Crafts law forbids craftspeople who are not members of Federal or State Recognized Indian tribes from doing so.  If they do, they are breaking the law.  In the maple product industry, the term ‘Vermont Made’ goes a long way.  Given the choice between a label that says “Vermont Made Maple Syrup” and “Maple Syrup”, which one will you purchase?  I’m certainly opting for the Vermont Made.  Why?  Because Vermonters make the finest maple syrup on the planet.  So now I pose the question… If you are on the market for a fine basket, will you purchase one that is labeled “Abenaki Made Basket” or will you purchase the one labeled “Basket”?  Again, I opt for the Abenaki Made basket because… yep, you guessed it… Abenakis are known for their fine basketry and craftsmanship. This enables Abenaki artisans to earn a living wage and it brings money into Vermont’s economy.

The third and probably most important reason why Abenakis have sought recognition from their State for over 3 decades is one that cannot be seen or heard.  It can only be felt.  Simply put, it is ‘Acceptance’.  However, there is nothing simple about these feelings and I do not possess the ability to explain their magnitude.  My words on paper could never describe the ancient feelings that live in the hearts of Vermont’s Abenaki people and the pain that they feel when others say that they are not who they say they are.

Last year, a new law (Act 107) put a series of criteria in place for the tribes to meet in order to be recognized as Native American Indian Tribes under the legal definition.  Genealogy IS among the criteria.  The process outlined in the law is clear and fair.  To date, four tribes have submitted applications.  As the Vermont Commission on Native American Affairs reviews these applications and makes recommendations to the General Assembly, I urge Vermonters to embrace them.  I’m a Vermonter… born and raised.

Freedom and Unity.

6 Comments leave one →
  1. Edward Gould Burton permalink
    February 14, 2011 8:29 PM

    Very, very well written … and if the State Senate can listen to reason, it will be accomplished.
    Oliwni, Luke Willard.

  2. Timothy Coons permalink
    February 15, 2011 2:14 PM

    Thanks for the enlightenment and insights of the Abenaki people. I have raised my children to appreciate all people and to understand the things that are important to them are important to others. This simple position has helped me as I grew up. I will share your post with friends as well.

  3. john permalink
    February 15, 2011 10:05 PM

    best of wishes.alot of us cant prove we mixed with the french n kept quiet about native ancestory..taboo they told me.yet taught me how to track, foridge the land and make the bow n arrow..b proud of your ancestors that u are here today…

  4. February 16, 2011 10:37 AM

    Thank you for posting this explanation, about the differences of state and federal recognition. I am Abenaki and I look forward to being able to label my artwork as Abenaki made.

  5. June 7, 2011 6:26 AM

    June 7th of 2011

    Mr. Willard,

    Thank you for pointing out the difference for the uninformed and being clear and concise.
    Please contact me at are producing the 6th annual ROCK, RATTLE AND DRUM POW WOW & SPIRIT ON THE MOUNTAIN MUSIC FESTIVAL ON AUGUST 13 AND 14 at Mt. Greylock in Lanesboro, Ma and would like to recognize the Abenaki nations and communities in this bio-region of our nations ( including the U.S. which come much later and uninvited). The irony of an immigrant population now judging and evaluating WHO is Indian and who isn’t. Please go to We produce 2 weekly radio programs. One in Bennington, VT GOOD MEDICINE – Native American Music, Art, News and Wellness on every Friday from 2-4pm. Please call into our studio line at 802-442-1010 and share your insights and updates about the Abenaki of Vermont. Thank you Vermont for finally recognizing the Aboriginal First Nations and communities in both your front ( past ) and back yard ( present and future ).

    • June 7, 2011 11:24 AM

      Oliwni (Thank you), Mr. Moreno, for your kind words. They come very much appreciated.

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