Generations spent underground
SWANTON, Vt. - After generations in the shadows and 30 years of struggle,
the Abenaki of Vermont hope this will be the year of their recognition.
A bill for state recognition is making more progress than ever before in a
newly sympathetic legislature, even though some state officials still
maintain the tribe doesn't exist. And the BIA's Office of Federal
Acknowledgment recently moved the tribe's petition for federal recognition
to "active status" 23 years after it was first filed.
"I'm optimistic," said Jeff Benay, chairman of the Governor's Advisory
Council on Native American Affairs. "Things are somewhat coming together."
The St. Francis-Sokoki Band of the Missisquoi has been asserting itself for
some 30 years, starting with hunting and fishing rights protests led by its
militant chief, the late Homer St. Francis. He reversed a time when Indians
in Vermont hid themselves from state oppression, including, they say, a
"eugenics" program of involuntary sterilization. The Abenaki now claim
3,000 adherents in northern New England. But apart from brief periods of
good feeling, they have run into unyielding opposition from some state
The issue emerged during the presidential campaign of former Vermont Gov.
Howard Dean, recently elected chairman of the Democratic National
Committee. Good relations in the first years of his administration turned
sour; during his last term he not only opposed Abenaki recognition, he
endorsed national legislation to limit tribal tax sovereignty.
During the presidential primaries, Sen. John Kerry used documents provided
by the Abenaki to counter Dean's endorsement by several prominent Indian
activists. Vermont Attorney General William Sorrell, a political protege of
Dean, is leading the in-state opposition to the Abenaki.
State Senate hearings on the recognition bill have turned into a running
debate between tribal leaders and Assistant Attorney General William
Griffin. The Attorney General's office maintains today's Abenaki have no
connection to the historic indigenous people of northern New England. It
submitted a 250-page report to the BIA in 2003 opposing their petition and
claiming that state documents referred to their members as French
"I'm absolutely astounded at the state's position," said Benay, a
non-Indian who has been adviser to the Abenaki for 25 years. Benay told
Indian Country Today he planned to defend Abenaki recognition at a Feb. 24
state Senate hearing "as a Vermonter," not as a representative of the state
government. He said the National Congress of American Indians had described
positions like the Attorney General's as "ethnic genocide."
Abenaki historian Frederick Wiseman argues that tribal members hid their
identity in the early 20th century because they feared becoming targets of
the state-sponsored Eugenics Survey, a program that flourished in the late
1920s with the aim of reducing what one report called the "social and
economic drag of avoidable low-grade Vermonters." Like parallel programs in
30 other states, it advocated sterilization of families it considered
congenitally criminal and "feeble-minded." Wiseman said that nearly every
Abenaki family in the state had been affected by the program.
Griffin has denied, however, that the eugenics program targeted Indians.
Last year he told ICT that its victims seemed to have been mainly French
Canadian. The Attorney General's office even used Eugenics Survey records
in its response to the Abenaki petition, publishing the actual names of
families in what many scholars consider a breach of academic ethics.
Sorrell denied in a recent interview that Vermont displayed prejudice
against American Indians. He told a news program on WAMC-FM, a public radio
station in Northampton, Mass., "I would look at the racism issue as it
relates to African-Americans. I am not aware of similar prejudice [against]
Wiseman replied that even in the 1920s, Vermont officially refused to admit
that Indians still remained in the state. The eugenics reports referred to
Abenaki families as "houseboat-dwelling lake pirates" or nomadic "gypsies."
The hearing was expected to be somber for another reason. It was scheduled
to take place just four days after the death of state Sen. Julius Canns,
81, who sponsored the recognition bill. Canns, a conservative Republican,
claimed Cherokee heritage and championed the Abenaki in the legislature.
The Senate scheduled an earlier hearing on the bill Feb. 15 as a tribute to
Canns, who was terminally ill with cancer.