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Abenaki acknowledgement decision postponed

SWANTON, Vt. - The final determination on the St. Francis/Sokoki Band of Abenaki Nation of Missisquoi's petition for federal acknowledgement has been postponed following the tribe's request for an extension. The new schedule means the decision will likely be issued in the spring.

The tribe was denied federal acknowledgement in a proposed

finding issued by the BIA in November 2005. The BIA said the evidence the tribe submitted failed to prove its members descended from the historical Abenaki tribe, that it existed as a tribe from 1900 to 1975, or that it was identified as a continuous community with political authority from first contact with non-Indians. The tribe planned to augment its petition with more documentation.

A final determination was expected in November 2006, but the tribe sought and received a three-month extension to submit additional materials supporting its petition.

''We had our extension and we did submit more paperwork in August. We naturally assumed [the final determination] would take some extra time,'' tribal Councilman Carol Delorme said. Chief April St. Francis-Merrill was unavailable for comment.

Lee Fleming, director of the Office of Federal Acknowledgement, wrote to St. Francis-Merrill on Nov. 6, 2006, to update the tribe on the status of its petition. His office would start work on the final determination in January, Fleming said.

The comment period on the proposed finding ended on Oct. 13, 2006.

The acknowledgement regulations provide that at the end of a proposed finding's comment and response periods, the agency is to consult with the petitioner and interested parties to establish ''an equitable timeframe'' for considering comments and responses on the proposed finding and completing the final determination, Fleming said.

''The OFA received no response from your group to any submissions from interested or informed parties, or any other individual organizations,'' Fleming said.

The OFA will now consider the written arguments and evidence rebutting or supporting the agency's proposed negative finding and follow with a final determination. The tribe will be notified of the date the OFA begins this phase of its work, because the agency is required to publish its final determination in the Federal Register within 60 days from the date it begins consideration of the final documents submitted by the tribe and other parties, Fleming said.

That would bring the expected final determination date to late March or April.

The tribe submitted its letter of intent to seek federal acknowledgement in 1980 and the filed its first petition in 1987. The petition was later withdrawn during a court case and resubmitted in 1996. The tribe received a federal grant to help put together its petition for federal recognition. Most of the work was done by tribal members with the help of consultants.

Vermont Attorney General William Sorrell vigorously opposed the tribe's quest for federal acknowledgement. The state did not submit any documents to the BIA following the proposed finding, a spokesman at the attorney general's office said.

In commenting on the BIA's proposed finding when it was issued, Sorrell said, ''This has never been about trying to discriminate against the group seeking tribal recognition. Since there are so many rights that typically flow from federal recognition, it is extremely important that the stringent legal tests for recognition be met. Our research indicated that this group has not met these tests. The BIA agrees with our assessment of the evidence.''

But tribal officials said the main thrust of his opposition focused on generating fear that the tribe would open a casino and file land claim lawsuits.

''They've brought up a casino and land claims for the last 25 years, and yet the attorney general has never agreed to meet with us and discuss these issues despite repeated offers by us to do so. The reason is that he knows those issues are a red herring to hide behind rather than face the underlying issue - the history of Vermont in prosecuting the Abenaki Nation, and how we can correct that wrong and move forward,'' St. Francis-Merrill said at the time.

The Vermont Legislature granted state recognition to the tribe in May 2006.

The tribe was decimated by colonist/settlers in the 18th and 19th centuries, and its surviving members were driven underground by the state's early 20th century genocidal racism in a ''eugenics'' program.

The St. Francis/Sokoki Band's 2,500 members are concentrated in Franklin County. Others live throughout the state and in New Hampshire.