Vermont Abenaki heritage endures despite challenges


SWANTON, Vt. – When the Vermont Legislature granted state recognition to the St. Francis/Sokoki Band of the Missisquoi Abenaki Nation last May, it validated the existence of a tribe that had been devastated by European colonist-settlers in the 18th and 19th centuries, and driven underground by the state’s genocidal racism in a 20th century “eugenics” program.

The St. Francis/Sokoki Band is Western Abenaki. The nation includes around 2,500 members concentrated in Franklin County. Others live throughout the state and in New Hampshire. The tribe is connected to the Eastern Abenaki of Maine, including the Passamaquoddy, Penobscot, Maliseet and Micmac. All are Algonquin-speaking people. Abenaki means “people of the dawn.”

“We’ve always existed,” said Chief April St. Francis Merrill. “We resided in Vermont and New Hampshire, part of Massachusetts and southern Quebec. We originated from the ash tree, according to our oral traditions. When the Creator created us, we started out as an ash tree and we always stayed strong, and that’s still part of our belief system and what we are taught today – staying strong for what you stand for. The ash tree stood through storms and it was also one of our resources. We still use the ash tree to make our baskets.”

The state has been nothing less than schizophrenic in its relationship to the tribe. The state recognition bill approved last spring was introduced by state Sen. Diane Snelling, the daughter of former Vermont Gov. Richard Snelling, who overturned Abenaki recognition in 1977 – a year after the previous governor, Thomas Salmon, recognized the tribe by executive order.

The tribe won an aboriginal fishing and hunting rights lawsuit in state Superior Court and then lost the rights in the U.S. Supreme Court when the state claimed the tribe didn’t exist. And while claiming the tribe didn’t exist, the state bought land for the tribe to repatriate the bodies of ancestors dug up by private landowners.

State recognition will allow Abenaki students to apply for American Indian scholarships, and will allow the tribe to market its arts and crafts as genuine Native products.

But state recognition is still only one small step in the tribe’s long struggle for federal recognition and justice, a quest that began in the early 1980s under the late Chief Homer St. Francis, an uncompromising activist for Indian rights.

St. Francis died in 2001, passing his leadership position – and his fighting spirit for tribal rights and justice – to his daughter, April St. Francis Merrill. Last November, the BIA issued a proposed determination denying the tribe federal acknowledgement. A final determination is expected in November.

“When I was young, we learned about the tribes out West, and that’s what most Americans think when they think about Indians. Even the BIA regulations make it so difficult for our history to be told or the Northeast tribes to overcome the hurdles to ‘prove’ our identity. We weren’t herded up and put on reservations, but we do have our own trail of tears,” St. Francis Merrill said.

In the 1920s Vermont sponsored a eugenics program that imposed sterilization on tribal members.

“They considered us degenerate, feeble-minded. They called us river rats and pirates and gypsies,” the chief said.

Members hid their identity to avoid being targeted.

Among the documents from that era is a letter from Adolf Hitler thanking the professor who conducted the eugenics study for tips on how to conduct an efficient sterilization program, St. Francis Merrill said.

The written historical record is distorted in various ways, she said.

“When our history was taught by others, they said we all left and went to Canada. What I say is, ‘No, we didn’t. You may have that in your books, but they were written by your people,’” St. Francis Merrill said.

There are records of 18th century slaughters by settler militias and 99-year timber leases. The tribe is still searching for a document signed by George Washington that promised the tribe’s land would not be taken if Abenaki men joined the battle.

The tribe will soon release a CD/video called “Against the Darkness” for all Vermont school systems.

“We’re big on fighting racism with education,” St. Francis Merrill said.

The state curriculum mandates that students learn about two tribes. The tribe wants one of them to be the Abenaki since Vermont is the tribe’s homeland.

“A lot of us still live a traditional life, hunting and fishing, and not just the men – women too. We gather berries. We raise big gardens. We try to take care of mother earth and she will provide for us,” St. Francis Merrill said.

While the tribe awaits the BIA’s final determination on recognition, St. Francis Merrill and the council continue to work on issues.

“I would like to have some of our homeland back so that our children could afford a home within their homeland. We have no reservation. We haven’t filed any land claims. We will file land claims if we get federal recognition,” St. Francis Merrill said.

If recognition is denied, the tribe will try to find money to appeal. The tribe has no financial backer and no plans at this time to open a casino.

Another major concern centers on the tribe’s extensive repatriation program.

“Right now they don’t follow their own laws – no one has been prosecuted for digging up remains of our ancestors,” St. Francis Merrill said.

Everything that is done today is for the next seven generations, the chief said.

“My best hopes are for our children to finally be able to be educated, go to college, come back and work within their own homeland. We’d like better economic development for our tribe. We’d like to have our own plants and put our own people to work,” St. Francis Merrill said.

Most important is to convey the tribe’s steadfastness, the chief said.

“I would like the children to know that we’ve always been here, we’re not leaving; we will continue the struggle, but we’re not going to disappear,” St. Francis Merrill said.