In the interview series Meet Native America, the Smithsonian National Museum of the American Indian invites tribal leaders, cultural figures, and other interesting and accomplished Native individuals to introduce themselves and say a little about their lives and work. Together, their responses illustrate the diversity of the indigenous communities of the Western Hemisphere, as well as their shared concerns, and offer insights beyond what’s in the news to the ideas and experiences of Native peoples today.
Please introduce yourself with your name and title.
I'm Jim Taylor. I'm an Elnu Abenaki tribal councilman and elder.
Can you share your Native name and its English translation, or your nickname?
My Native name is Nanabi Wokwses, which is Abenaki for Fast Fox. Many of my people just call me JT.
I am Abenaki and Cherokee. N'wjihla W8banakiak, which means, "I come from the People from Where the Sun Rises." (The letter 8 in the Abenaki alphabet is a vowel with a soft, slightly nasal sound that has been described as sounding like the u in uncle.)
Where is your tribe located?
Our Tribal Headquarters is in the small town of Jamaica, Vermont, in Windham County in the southwestern part of the state.
Where is your tribe originally from?
Our original territories were the southern portions of Vermont and included abutting areas of Massachusetts at one time. Our current home lies at the heart of our ancestral territory.
What is a significant point in history from your tribe that you would like to share?
First and foremost, our state recognition on April 22, 2011, which took many years to secure with the Vermont State Legislature. It was a hard fought fight by many elders before me, who saw state recognition granted then taken away in the 1990s. We kept fighting and finally secured recognition for the Abenaki people 17 years later.
If I might add a second important point in our history, it is our being asked, along with the three other state-recognized tribes—the Nulhegans, Koaseks, and Missisquoi—to be part of a historic Wabanaki Confederacy meeting in August 2015 with our Eastern Wabanaki cousins—the Penobscot, Wolastoqiyik (Maliseet), Passamaquoddy, and Mi'kmaq. Until that day, such a meeting had not been held in Vermont in over 200 years. We came together to affirm our alliance as Wabanaki people, bound by our traditional wampum belts, to help each other and support one another moving forward as one people.
How is your tribal government set up?
We have an elected chief, or sagomo, and two Council leaders and elders—neg8nigo—one male and one female.
Is there a functional, traditional entity of leadership in addition to your modern government system?
We have a very traditional tribal society and form of government that we adhere to. Our tribal Constitution is not only on paper in the Vermont state government archives, but also traditionally written in wampum bead strands for our people as well.
How often are elected leaders chosen?
Our sagomo is appointed for life or until the chief chooses to step aside or is deemed unfit to hold the position by the Council elders. At that time a Grand Council will be ordered by the Tribal Council, and tribal members will be asked to vote for a new leader selected by the Council elders.
How often does your Tribal Council meet?
We meet once a month and at other times when there is an important issue that needs to be heard.
To read the full interview, visit the NMAI series here.