Skip to main content

BIA denies Abenaki recognition

SWANTON, Vt. - The BIA has denied the St. Francis/Sokoki Band of the Missisquoi Abenaki Nation federal acknowledgement, ending the tribe's 27-year quest for recognition through the federal agency process.

In a press release June 22, the Interior Department said the Abenaki Band failed to meet four of the seven mandated criteria for federal status.

The tribe may appeal the decision or it may seek recognition through legislative action.

The BIA said the 1,171-member band could not prove its continuous existence as an American Indian ''entity'' on a continuous basis since 1900, or since historical times; could not prove it had maintained political authority over its members; and could not prove its members descend from a historical tribe.

''I wasn't surprised, but I am angry. I am angry and all American Native tribes should be angry, even the ones that are recognized,'' Chief April St. Francis Merrill said.

''We may appeal. Recognition would be wonderful because we'd be eligible for so much more as a people and especially for our children. But you know what? I'm not going to disappear and our people are not going to disappear because the federal government says we don't exist. I'm still who I am and our people are still who they are,'' St. Francis Merrill said.

The finding that the tribe lacked evidence of its existence since 1990 is ''particularly galling, considering Vermont's well-known 20th century eugenics program,'' St. Francis Merrill said. ''It's like being doubly victimized.

''Tribal members went underground to avoid being identified. So first, you've got to hide to survive; and then when you come out you're told you're not who you are. They were sterilizing our people and do you think the people are going to come forward and say they're Native Americans when they're sterilizing you?'' St. Francis Merrill asked.

Carl Artman, Interior's Assistant Secretary for Indian Affairs, called the Abenaki tribal office with the news late in the afternoon. Other Interior officials were also on the call, St. Francis Merrill said.

''Last time it was Jim Cason and he told me he was calling a spade a spade. [This time] they kept telling us what a wonderful job their staff did on our petition. I told them I find it hard to believe they did all this research and not one of them had any questions for us and they never called any archaeologists or anthropologists in Vermont,'' St. Frances Merrill said.

The tribe's quest for acknowledgement has turned and twisted over the decades.

The state spent $35,000 studying the tribe in 1976 when the governor at the time gave the tribe state recognition. The next year a new governor wrote off the tribe's state recognition in an executive order, only to issue a proclamation in 1983 saying the St. Francis/Sokoki Band was the only tribal government in Vermont.

Homer St. Francis, St. Francis Merrill's father, submitted the tribe's letter of intent in 1980 and filed the first petition in 1987. That petition was later withdrawn during a court case and resubmitted in 1996.

The tribe won an aboriginal fishing and hunting rights lawsuit in state Superior Court, a decision that was overturned in an appeal to the state Supreme Court on the state's claim that the tribe doesn't exist. While claiming the tribe doesn't exist, however, the state purchased land for the repatriation of ancestors' bodies that had been dug up by private land owners.

Last year, the state recognized the ''Abenaki people'' of Vermont, a gesture that shortchanged the tribe of full state recognition. Various groups claiming to be Abenaki have ''popped up'' since then, St. Francis Merrill said.

Most of the petition was written by tribal members with the help of a federal grant.

''They [the Interior officials] didn't like it, but I told them, 'It's because we didn't have money that you didn't recognize us.' They said, 'No, that's not what it's about. It's not about politics,' but I said, 'Bull.' We don't have big investors. We aren't going for the big casino,'' St. Francis Merrill said.

The tribal council will discuss whether to appeal within 90 days or seek federal acknowledgement through an act of Congress, St. Francis Merrill said.

Vermont Attorney General William Sorrell, who opposed the Abenaki petition, announced the BIA decision on his Web site.

''The BIA decision was not unexpected. It is consistent with the federal agency's Proposed Finding, issued in November 2005,'' Sorrell said.