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New Indian commission chair supports amending state recognition bill

MONTPELIER, Vt. – Four years after the state legislature passed a bill establishing the Vermont Commission on Native American Affairs, the commission is still struggling to establish its statutory authority “to recognize the historic and cultural contributions of Native Americans to Vermont, to protect and strengthen their heritage, and to address their needs in state policy, programs and actions.”

The reason for the long delay? The original bill that created the commission – S. 117 – was flawed. It recognized Vermont’s Abenaki “people” and “all Native American people who reside in Vermont as a minority population” instead of specifically naming the St. Francis/Sokoki Band of Abenaki Indians of Missisquoi and other Abenaki bands and tribes as state recognized tribes.

That language doesn’t meet the criteria for Native artists to label their productions under the federal Indian Arts and Crafts Act.

Now Charles Delaney-Megeso, the commission’s new chairman – the third since 2006 – is hoping amendments to An Act Relating to Recognition of Abenaki Tribes will be passed during this legislative session.

Delaney-Megeso, a Mazipskwik (Missisquoi) Abenaki who describes himself as a traditionalist, joined the commission in September 2008. Last November, Gov. Jim Douglas appointed him as the commission chair.

An advocate and activist for indigenous rights for decades, Delaney-Megeso was the Missisquoi St. Francis/Sokoki Abenaki Band’s ambassador to the Vermont and U.S. governments during part of the 1990s.

He was an indigenous representative to the UN Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues 2002 – 2004, and helped draft the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples.

Delaney-Megeso continues his activism as a board member of the Nicaragua Network, a non-governmental organization committed to social and economic justice in Nicaragua. The organization was established more than 30 years ago to support the Nicaraguan people’s popular struggle – the Sandinista Revolution – to overthrow the U.S.-supported Somoza family dictatorship that had been in place for more than 45 years.

A mason by trade, he makes frequent trips to Nicaragua to participate in construction projects.

“I figure people have come and rallied with us here in Vermont to get us to where we are so if we stand together, we have a better chance. Can I take care of the problems in Nicaragua? No. But how do you really help people? I learned a trade and I think it’s important to stick with our strengths.”

There are alternatives to fighting all the time, Delaney-Megeso said.

“Part of what I’ve always tried to do is to get people together. If you get off the us versus them you can find a way to work together.”

Deleany-Mesego was involved in the writing and passage of S. 117. But the bill that was written was not the same bill that was enacted, he said at a public hearing before the Senate Economic Development Committee Jan. 28.

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“Just before S.117 was passed, substantive changes were made in the final draft that were not made public and which greatly altered the provisions for the Vermont Commission on Native American Affairs,” Delaney-Megeso said.

The legislature’s current bill – S. 222 – seeks to correct the flawed S. 117 in a number of ways.

Mostly importantly, the language recognizing Vermont’s Abenaki “people” as a “minority population” would be changed. The federal Indian Arts and Crafts Act requires individual Native artists to be members of federally recognized or state recognized tribes. Official state recognition can be granted by the legislature or by a state commission that has been given authority to grant recognition.

The proposal would recognize the Abenaki Nation of Mississquoi St. Francis Sokoki Band composed of the Missisquoi, St. Francis and Sokoki Bands; the Koasek Traditional Band of the Koas Abenaki Nation; the Nulhegan Band of the Abenaki Nation, also known as the Northern Coosuk/Old Philip’s Band; and the ELNU Abenaki Tribe of the Koasek.

Instead of the governor appointing commission members and the chair, the bill proposes seating three members appointed by the Abenaki Nation of Missisquoi, St. Francis Sokoki Band; one member appointed by the Koasek Traditional Band of the Koas Abenaki Nation; one member appointed by the Nulhegan Band of the Abenaki Nation, one member appointed by the ELNU Abenaki Tribe of the Koasek; and one member appointed by the other six commission members from a list of candidates compiled by the state’s Division for Historic Preservation.

The commission would elect its own chairman.

The proposed bill also includes state adoption of the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples. Koasek Chief Nancy Millette suggested including the Declaration in the bill, and having served on a subcommittee that worked on the draft Declaration at the UN Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues, Delaney-Megeso strongly supported its inclusion.

“You kept hearing again and again from indigenous people wherever they came from in the world how they were being marginalized. It was more about how do we save the whole culture,” Delaney-Megeso said.

He stated clearly to the legislators that he was testifying on his own behalf and not speaking for the commission.

The commission has not taken a position on the proposed bill, he said. One member wants it tabled; another “committed treason” because he testified on the issue.

“And so, on that note, I now speak only for myself,” Delaney-Megeso said.

But he was conciliatory.

“I am strongly of the opinion that if we – both delegates from tribes and at-large Native Commissioners – were able to work together at the same table, many of these difficulties could be overcome. Where old wounds now fester, new alliances of trust and mutual aid could be forged.”

The bill is wending its way through the process. Neither the Senate nor the House have voted on it yet.