MONTPELIER, Vt. – Barring last-minute hitches, the Abenaki could receive long-sought state recognition in a formal signing ceremony as early as April 18. Supporters of the northern Vermont tribe are hoping to have Vermont Gov. James Douglas sign the recognition bill on the state House steps to celebrate the end of an often bitter decades-long struggle that has had some impact on national politics.
The festivities are expected to bring in Abenaki from around the United States and Canada, where two bands occupy small reservations in Quebec. The traditional territory of the Abenaki people ran from the southern bank of the St. Lawrence River to the eastern seaboard of what is now New England.
The recognition fight led by the St. Francis/Sokoki Band of the Abenaki Nation of Missisquoi reached its culmination April 5 when the Vermont House of Representatives voted 130 to 1 for a version of a bill passed unanimously by the Senate just under a year earlier. But the House made some minor changes in language, and the bill’s supporters waited nervously for a final Senate vote on April 13, after press deadline.
The tension increased when some rival tribal leaders made last-minute telephone calls to senators objecting to some of the bill’s language. Jeff Benay, chairman of the Governor’s Advisory Committee on Indian Affairs and an ally of the St. Francis/Sokoki Band, fretted that the calls might induce Senate leaders to withdraw the bill. If it failed to pass this year, he told Indian Country Today, such a favorable alignment of forces would be highly unlikely to arise again in the near future.
Legislative support, he said, was swelled by a wave of sympathy over the deaths of two of the bill’s longtime supporters. Veteran state Sen. Julius Canns, a strong recognition advocate with Abenaki heritage, passed away a year ago just before the Senate voted on the bill. The unanimous passage was seen as a personal tribute to him. Benay said the bill was also considered a memorial to University of Vermont professor James Petersen, chair of the Department of Anthropology and specialist on early Indian settlements in the state, who was murdered that summer in Brazil.
Ironically, state recognition also became easier when the Interior Department rejected the Abenaki Nation of Missisquoi’s petition for federal acknowledgement. Some state legislators who based their opposition on fears of a tribal casino or land-claims suits concluded the federal action ruled out those prospects and switched to supporting the bill.
The bill also relieves some embarrassment for Democratic National Chairman Howard Dean, former governor of Vermont and 2004 candidate for his party’s presidential nomination. As governor, Dean strongly opposed recognition, a position he still defended even while energetically pursuing Native support for his candidacy. The St. Francis/Sokoki Band made his Indian record an issue in the 2004 primaries, ultimately endorsing former Gen. Wesley Clark. Some Republican critics have thrown this record against Dean in his current position, as he actively recruits Indian support for the Democratic Party. He could expect state recognition to make the issue moot.
Just to make sure, though, the state legislation excludes recognition as grounds for any land claims. It limits the benefits to applications for grants and to the labeling of Abenaki craftsmen as Native artists under federal legislation. A number of Abenaki were making a living pursuing traditional crafts but were unable to market their products as Native-made without having at least state recognition.
The bill also establishes a Vermont Commission on Native American Affairs, to assist in aid applications to state and federal agencies, including the U.S. Education Department and the federal Indian Arts and Crafts Board. Benay said that some last-minute critics objected that the commission would have no state budget. He retorted that it would be better not to depend on state funding.
The bill primarily benefits the Abenaki, who have an active tribal council and who have raised a strong voice in the state since the 1970s under the forceful leadership of the late Homer St. Francis. The daughter of St. Francis, April Rushlow, led the band in protests in 2000 when home-builders excavated a Native cemetery in Swanton, near the site of a historic Jesuit mission to the Sokoki. The band and local leaders later negotiated a widely praised protocol for dealing with accidental disinterments.
The bill also recognizes “other Native Americans” as a state minority. Although the term “minority” also raised some objections, Benay said it would trigger some legal benefits. One of the tasks for state Indians will be to sort out claims for Native status from groups and individuals not affiliated with the Abenaki, and in one or two cases, quite hostile to them.
Benay noted that several hundred of the state’s 1,700 Abenaki had well-documented connections to the Odanak Band in Quebec. By coincidence, as the recognition bill neared final reading, representatives of Canada’s Odanak and Walinak Abenaki Bands held a public meeting in northern Vermont to acquaint expatriate members with a pending claims settlement with the Canadian government. Members of the bands will vote later in April on a $2 million offer to each to settle century-old timber rights.
State Rep. Michael Marcotte, who attended the meeting, told a local reporter that his grandparents hid their Native roots because at the time the Ku Klux Klan was burning crosses to intimidate French Canadians and Indians. “They were meant to feel ashamed of their heritage, their religion,” he said.