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“See You in HELL!” Swanton Commission meeting gets heated

April 21, 2011

[**Nulheganaki Notes]

Abenaki in-fighting mars panel session
Written By: Leon Thompson/St. Albans Messenger

April 20, 2011

Tribal band torn into two entities

SWANTON VILLAGE –– Abenaki in-fighting became public here Tuesday during the Vermont Commission on Native American Affairs’ first meeting in Swanton – now home to two bands of Abenaki: the Missisquoi-Sokoki and the Maquam.

Fiery talks of Missisquoi-Sokoki defection, questionable population counts in the nation’s application for state recognition, and now the cancellation of the annual heritage festival permeated a lunchtime public forum that the commission held at the Swanton Village Municipal Complex.

Even while the Missisquoi-Sokoki Abenaki forge ahead with a longtime effort for state recognition, it appears a divisiveness has splintered them unlike any seen since the mid-1980s, when former chiefs Leonard “Blackie” Lampman and Homer St. Francis engaged in public rivalries, along with their families.

“I realize there’s a disagreement in this community that goes back a long ways,” Commission Chairman Luke Willard said during one point of the 90-minute forum, which preceded the commission’s regular monthly meeting. “But this is not the commission’s business, and it is not my business. I hope you can work things out.” About 30 people, including a group of Abenaki children, attended the public forum. The nine-member commission typically holds its meetings in Montpelier but has traveled around the state and held similar forums at its sessions.

“We thought it would be a good idea to travel the state,” said Willard, of Newport. “People from different regions have different needs and we want to know what they are.” Swanton’s Abenaki had no problem telling him.

Missisquoi Abenaki Chief April St. Francis Merrill, the late Homer St. Francis’ daughter, quickly announced the cancellation of the Abenaki Heritage Festival, held during the first week of May in Swanton Village.

Each year, Abenaki from all over the state and Northeast fill the village green with music, crafts and other displays of Abenaki culture, but for the first time in 18 years, the festival is a no-go.

In- and out-of-state vendors claimed $4-a-gallon gas prices were keeping them from traveling to Swanton this year, Merrill said.

“We have tried everything that we could possibly try,” the chief said.

A few minutes later, the conversation turned to the Missisquoi Abenaki application for state recognition. Frustrated with the process, 12 to 15 members of the Missisquoi Abenaki, including members of the Lampman family, have broken off into their own faction: the Maquam band.

Three of them – Christina and Matthew Barratt, of Swanton, and Brad Barratt, of South Burlington – question the Abenaki rolls included in the application. The rolls contain incorrect names and addresses, duplicate and triplicate names, and the names of deceased Abenaki, the Barratts claimed.

“This should be thrown right out the window,” Brad Barratt said, holding up the thick application.
About a dozen people from the Maquam band have called Willard and asked to be relinquished from the Missisquoi Abenaki rolls. Those people have not completed the proper forms or turned in their Abenaki citizenry cards, Merrill said.

The Abenaki rolls are under review, but they should meet the criteria for recognition, because 51 percent of them are from a specific geographic area, and there is evidence that the Abenaki conduct a census, according to Willard.

“We just have to have proof that one exists,” he said.

That wasn’t enough for the Barratts, who stormed out of the meeting.

“We’ll see you all in federal court!” one of them shouted at Merrill. Brad Barratt yelled at Willard and pointed his finger at him.

“Don’t you point your finger at me,” Willard snapped, as the Barratts left the complex.

[**The part Leon leaves out is when Brad Barratt left, he screamed out “SEE YOU IN HELL!” in front of several children and elders. -LW]

Connie Brow, of Swanton, who was seated with the Barratts, said the Bureau of Indian Affairs received a signed letter from her, asking that she, too, be removed from the Abenaki rolls. Brow said she never sent the letter.
Dave Vanslette, a commission member from Highgate, thought it was unfortunate that the recognition process divided the Abenaki into bands and did not consider them “a whole, one people.”

“We could, as a people, put our differences aside,” Vanslette said. “I just hate to see any true Abenaki miss out.”
Brenda Gagne, who leads educational programs for the Missisquoi Abenaki, echoed Vanslette’s sentiments.

“We all need to become one,” she said. “The children don’t need to sit here and hear this. They hear enough of it at school. They don’t need to see it from their elders.”

The commission finished reviewing the Missisquoi-Sokoki Abenaki petition for recognition earlier this month and will pass it on to lawmakers before the end of this session.

However, it is unlikely lawmakers will act on the application until the 2012 session, Willard said. That news frustrated some Abenaki and Willard, who announced that if the petition did not see expeditious action, he would reluctantly resign as commission chairman.

[**This was not a shakedown, I wanted the community to understand how confident I am that legislators will take action at the beginning of the 2012 session. -LW]

“We’ve been dealing with this for 40 years,” one Abenaki man said. “To wait another year, it’s kind of a slap in the face.” He and others worried that a future legislature could repeat history and rescind recognition, if it’s approved.

“Just because the Abenaki aren’t recognized by the state, just remember: you don’t need anybody to tell you who you are,” Vanslette said to applause.

Another cloud hangs over the Abenaki: the pending criminal charge against Chief Merrill, 42. Last month, she denied in court that she stole thousands of dollars from an elderly member of her nation during a five-year period.

The state contends that Merrill stole more than $30,000 from Louis LaFrance, of Highgate Springs, after she became a payee on his bank account in 2005.

During a break in the session yesterday, Merrill told the Messenger that two people have asked her to step down as chief since her charge surfaced, but she is not going to.

“I am not guilty of anything, and I haven’t been convicted of anything,” Merrill said. “And I will continue to run my nation as I do.”

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