Chairman of Vermont Indian affairs commission resigns

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MONTPELIER, Vt. – The man who led the Vermont Commission on Native American Affairs through a two-year tug of war with the state over its refusal to pass legislation recognizing Vermont’s indigenous Abenaki people has resigned.
Mark Mitchell, Abenaki, sent a letter of resignation to Gov. James Douglas Sept. 1, expressing his frustration over the state’s lack of action to correct its flawed 2006 law that created the commission in part to protect Vermont’s Indian artists and artisans under the federal Indian Arts and Crafts Act, but didn’t give it the authority it needed to recognize the state’s Abenaki tribes and bands.
“Quite frankly, I feel that I have been put in an untenable situation from the onset in that the Vermont Commission on Native American Affairs has established powers which are illusory; that is, how can the commission maintain said established powers unless the state concomitantly recognizes Native peoples residing within its borders?” he wrote.
“In other words, how can the state of Vermont establish a commission with established authority yet at the same time failing to recognize the Native Americans, i.e. the Abenaki, as delineated historically as the St. Francis/Sokoki Band of the Missisquoi?”
The Legislature’s 2006 bill – S. 117 – recognized Vermont’s Abenaki “people,” created the commission and gave it the authority, among other things, to “permit the creation, display and sale of Native American arts and crafts and legally to label them as Indian- or Native American-produced” as provided in the federal Indian Arts and Crafts Act of 1990.
But when the commission began drafting criteria to recognize tribes and bands, the state’s attorney general’s office stepped in and claimed the commission was authorized only to recognize individual artists, not tribes or bands.
The issue heated up last year when Indian Arts and Crafts Board Director Meredith Stanton described the Vermont situation as “odd” and said the state legislation does not meet the federal act’s requirements.
The situation entered the realm of irony early this year when Jesse Larocque, a master Abenaki basket maker who has received federal grants for his work, was issued a cease and desist order from another federal agency – the Indian Arts and Crafts Board – to stop labeling his work as made by an Abenaki Indian.
During the last legislative session, the Vermont Legislature failed to pass a bill that would have recognized three Abenaki bands after numerous amendments, hearings and Senate support.
Republican state Sen. Vincent Illuzzi, the chair of the Senate Committee on Economic Development and a supporter of state recognition for Vermont’s Abenaki tribes and bands, acknowledged during the process that the issue was muddied by misinformation and fear that state recognition would be followed by casinos.
“There’s a lot of misinformation and bias against the Abenakis. I don’t know why or where it’s coming from. It’s very discouraging at times. Some people have been led to think this is going to lead to gaming and Indian reservations and casinos, which is dead wrong, but once these people have these ideas in their heads – and the opponents who are spreading this don’t take the time to do the research – it’s hard to get people on track,’’ Illuzzi told Indian Country Today at the time.
Mitchell said the Legislature’s failure to act was “shameful.”
“To simply not address the recognition issue because of political nuance is nothing short of shameful in the year 2008,” he said in his resignation letter.
In an interview with ICT, Mitchell said he felt relieved to be off the commission.
“After two years of trying to correct S. 117, it failed; … it’s still the Legislature’s fault for creating S. 117 and the Legislature’s fault for not correcting it. I feel relieved. I guess they prematurely created a commission.”
Mitchell had served on an advisory committee for Indian affairs in the early 1990s under former Gov. Howard Dean and noted a world of difference between the two entities.
“The first one had a purpose and it had a community. Three members were appointed by the governor and three were appointed by the tribal council of the St. Francis/Sokoki Band of the Abenaki Nation of Missisquoi. So the community focus back then was the Missisquoi Indians and then when they created S. 117 that became lost and I suppose whatever relationship the state had with the Native community – I don’t see it there anymore.”
The BIA denied the St. Francis Missisquoi Band federal recognition in 2007 after almost three decades of effort – a denial that also enters the realm of irony in view of the fact that the band has received federal funding for education and other purposes for more than 30 years. Even the tribe’s Web site – www.abenakination.org – was federally funded.
Mitchell said he had declined a telephone offer during the summer from the governor’s office to be reappointed to the commission, but there was no follow-up. He was under the impression that his term had expired on July 31, but then discovered a statute indicating his term would be extended to March 1, 2009, since the governor had taken no action to appoint his replacement.
“I have no desire to convene the current commission and in respect to the Abenaki peoples. I am stepping down as chair of the Vermont Commission on Native American Affairs, since lack of respect by the Vermont Legislature leaves me no other choice,” Mitchell told the governor in his resignation letter.