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Fulfilling the Legacy of Abenaki Chiefs, a Q&A with Brian Chenevert

Brian Chenevert, 37, is a former Abenaki Chief from Webster, Massachusetts who moves seamlessly between his band’s efforts to achieve state recognition, his work as a disability claims manager, and athletics.

Indian Country Today Media Networkcaught up to Chenevert shortly after he played point guard against The Harlem Rockets and just before his first run for a seat on the Board of Selectman.

You played point guard for your town’s Dream Team against the Harlem Rockets?

Yes, this was a fundraiser for the fifth grade to go to Nature’s Classroom, an environmental education program that is important but expensive. Nearly five hundred people showed up for the game and it was a great, fun family night. We raised enough money so that now everyone in the class can attend. I coach and play basketball, so it was natural to be involved this way.

You are running for a seat on your home town’s Board of Selectman?

Yes, there is one slot open and four people running. It is my first time into local politics and I am the youngest by 15 years.

My father (Norman Chenevert) passed in December. His passing was a big reason for me to run for office. He was very involved in our town and always advised me to take action, to contribute to making the community the best possible place to live.

I would like to be involved with revitalizing our downtown as well as our schools. It is a Native perspective that I bring, in that I would not suggest that we just plug the holes of today, but rather, consciously plan for future generations.

If I can get thirty or forty more people out to vote who hadn’t been registered before now, I will consider that a success.

Please tell us what your history was as Chief.

I am now a former (band) Chief. I stepped down after five years, after finishing my term. When I was Chief I lived in Webster, Massachusetts and traveled back and forth to the Vermont State House as those were the years we fought for and won state recognition. Today, the state recognizes the Nulhegan and the Elnu bands. We needed input from the tribe as well as comments to help the legislature form the bill for state recognition; I had a hand in writing the legislation. Professor Frederick Wiseman, who wrote and produced “Against the Darkness,” and is a humanities professor at Johnson State College of Vermont, was one person who spearheaded the effort. Also, Luke Willard, the Chair of the Vermont Commission of Native American Affairs, helped. It was a long process and sometimes it got ugly but everyone realized state recognition was too big not to keep pressing forward.

Over the past ten years, a lot of people have been coming back to the blanket. On average, we would have five new applicants, individuals or families, a month seeking inclusion. In Vermont, the families know one another. Paul Binnall, an elder, lives for the work and helps people fill in the gaps caused by Eugenics. In Vermont, unfortunately, Eugenics caused a lot of torn families, and people don’t want to talk about that even today.

I also went to hearings on state recognition in New Hampshire while we were pushing through a bill that would set up a Commission on Native American Affairs in that state, and that was accomplished just last year.

What exactly is the benefit of state recognition?

In my opinion, federal recognition is political; it recognizes that you have a sovereign nation and rights that belong to that nation. State recognition is cultural. It means that you actually are there, in the state you live. Separately, you are eligible for Title VII education funds through the federal government as well as benefits of the Indian Child Welfare Act. Crafts can be legally named Native-made. So, say just for example, if you made war clubs, you might once have sold them for $50 but now as Native-made you can get a price of a hundred dollars. This is one of the biggest benefits since many of our people earn their livings from crafts.

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It was a Korean War veteran who told me that veterans of all wars find their way to Brunswick Springs in Vermont for healing.

Yes, it is an awe-inspiring place. I do refer people there, and advise that if you have benefitted from the springs to pay your respects and help keep it clean. For many years it was let to go to pieces and area kids party there so it is difficult to keep it up. The new chief of the Missiquois St. Francis Sokoki, Chief John Churchill, will spearhead that effort as that is the band who owns the springs.

I was not involved in the purchase of Brunswick Springs, though. There were fundraisers and the Pequot were approached. They were in a better financial state then and their purpose included helping the tribes that didn’t have money. They made a substantial donation, about $50,000, toward the purchase in the mid-90s.

The story of the return of the Abenaki corn is incredibly compelling.

Yes, a local family contacted us and told this fantastic story that they were of the first white family in the Connecticut River valley and were given corn by the Abenaki. All those 200 years they raised it and took care of it. They wanted to give it back and they gave us a number of dry corn. Every harvest we hand out a little more to the people. I do direct people to Nathan Pero, who takes care of that for us. When we learned of the corn, Nathan said he actually knew that family, the Calley family, all along. But no one put two and two together. That’s simply how it was (when people had to hide their identity).

You have been involved with the Abenaki efforts to resurrect winter games such as the snow snake competitions.

Yes, the winter games I did while still Chief. I like to do a lot of research and I did a study on the winter games. Chief Roger Longtoe Sheehan of the Elnu and I put our heads together. We started small and in 2007 we had them in Randolf, VT. Then we went to Haverhill, NH, then twice in Thetford, VT, and then Brownington, VT.

This year we combined the snow snake games with maple sugaring. We could not gather much sap this year but the children could see the entire process. We had a social; it was pretty successful. The kids love it and the adults get to act like kids.

Sometimes you have an idea and others have it at the same time. I went on a canoe trip with Larry Spotted Crow Mann (Nipmuc) and Pam Ellis in order to get back on the water. Now, all the New England people, all the tribes, are dreaming to have an organized canoe down the Connecticut River. Three tribes -- the Nipmuc, Mohegan, and Pequot-- may relay the river’s length by paddling their historical parts of the river.

Have you also been involved with Abenaki language preservation efforts?

Yes, in 2007 I discovered while I was doing research that Dartmough College held a fifty-volume set of Stephen Laurent’s recorded readings from his father’s (Chief Joseph Laurent) Abenaki-to-English dictionary. So I referred this to White Pine Associates, an Abenaki non-profit. They obtained a copy and distributed it. I found this on a fluke—it was incredible!

I also helped organize a language classroom that taught Abenaki through basketmaking; that was done with G’dkinna, a non-profit headed by Rick Pouliot, who brought in Elie Joubert and Jesse Bruchac, fluent Abenaki speakers.

Are your neighbors aware that you are Abenaki?

Yes, most townspeople know I am Abenaki and no, the average person probably doesn’t know the difference between Abenaki and Nipmuc (the original people of the Webster, MA area) but they do respect us.

I live next to the soccer field that was dedicated to the Nipmuc Pegan family. A Nipmuc carver did the stone work--he carved a village scene on the stone. Erecting that monument is one way that shows how the town is open and accommodating to its original people. The effort was driven forward by the New England Native American Institute of Worcester.

Chenevert did not win his first race to be a member of the Board of Selectman. However, he wrote to friends and family, “It was a good showing for my first go-round.”

In addition, the day after Chenevert’s race in Massachusetts, Vermont’s Governor Shumlin signed a bill into law that recognized the Koasek and Missisquoi Bands of Abenaki, so now there is a total of four state- recognized Bands of Abenaki in Vermont.