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Vermont band denied federal recognition

SWANTON, Vt. -- The chief of the St. Francis/Sokoki Band of the Abenaki
Nation of Missisquoi said the tribe will continue its quest for federal
acknowledgement despite a preliminary denial by the BIA.

"We have always known this is not an easy process," said Chief April St.
Francis-Merrill. "Native people are the only people who have to prove to
the government that tried its best to ethnically cleanse us that we
survived being ethnically cleansed. The battle isn't over. It's just
begun."

The BIA issued a proposed finding Nov. 10, saying the St. Francis/Sokoki
Band's evidence failed to prove its members descended from the historical
Abenaki tribe, that it existed as a tribe from 1900 to 1975, or that it was
identified as a continuous community with political authority from first
contact with non-Indians.

According to a Department of the Interior press release, "The petitioning
group did not meet criteria 83.7 (a), (b), (c) and (e) of the
acknowledgment regulations [Part 83 of Title 25 of the United States Code
of Federal Regulations]."

The tribe has 180 days to submit additional information.

BIA spokesman Nedra Darling emphasized the preliminary nature of the
ruling.

"They have the opportunity to pull some documents together and pinpoint
their efforts. They have time now to go back and look at records and
hopefully provide the information," Darling said.

The denial marks the third time in less than a month that the BIA has
denied federal recognition to a New England tribe.

On Oct. 12, Associate Deputy Secretary James Cason issued reconsidered
final determinations rescinding the federal acknowledgment of two
Connecticut tribes, the Eastern Pequot Tribal Nation and the Schaghticoke
Tribal Nation. He notified the tribes by fax, which stung tribal leaders.
Eastern Pequot and Schaghticoke members said Cason apologized for his
action at the recent National Congress of American Indians convention.

Cason telephoned Merrill to announce his decision.

"I wasn't surprised. We've seen what happened to the last two New England
tribes. I know they're going through the same thing we're going through,
but it must be even worse for them because they had recognition. They [the BIA] give it and they take it away. They make it so hard for the Eastern
tribes to succeed," Merrill said.

As in Connecticut, Vermont's Attorney General William Sorrell used the
power of his office to mount a tough opposition campaign against the
tribe's efforts.

In commenting on the BIA decision, Sorrell said, "This has never been about
trying to discriminate against the group seeking tribal recognition. Since
there are so many rights that typically flow from federal recognition, it
is extremely important that the stringent legal tests for recognition be
met. Our research indicated that this group has not met these tests. The
BIA agrees with our assessment of the evidence."

But the main thrust of his opposition, as in Connecticut, focused on
generating fear that the tribe would open a casino and file land claim
lawsuits.

"They've brought up a casino and land claims for the last 25 years, and yet
the attorney general has never agreed to meet with us and discuss these
issues despite repeated offers by us to do so. The reason is that he knows
those issues are a red herring to hide behind rather than face the
underlying issue -- the history of Vermont in prosecuting the Abenaki
Nation, and how we can correct that wrong and move forward," Merrill said.

Merrill estimated that the attorney general has spent about $400,000 of
taxpayers' money to fight the tribe.

"Are they going to give us the same amount of money they spent on experts
to finish up our petition?" Merrill asked.

The tribe has no money and no financial backer. The tribe's lawyer provides
his services pro bono.

Although the tribe has no reservation, it has purchased 300 acres in
Brunswick Springs and sold the development rights to the Vermont Land
Trust. The $200,000 purchase price was raised by members and through
generous donations, Merrill said.

"It was aboriginal land that at one point was a sacred healing ground for
all Native people, whether Abenaki or not. There are six different mineral
water springs there used for healing. There have been people in the past
who built hotels and things there, and they all burned to the ground,"
Merrill said.

The tribe's struggle for both state and federal recognition has taken many
twists and turns over the years.

Merrill inherited the title of chief from her father, who died in 2001. He
submitted the tribe's letter of intent to seek federal acknowledgement in
1980 and the filed the first petition in 1987. The petition was later
withdrawn during a court case and resubmitted in 1996.

In 1976, the state spent $35,000 on a study of the tribe. The governor at
the time said he would grant the tribe state recognition if it could prove
its identity.

"We did that and had state recognition for a whole three months," Merrill
said. In 1977, a new governor wrote off the tribe's state recognition in an
executive order, Merrill said.

But in 1983, the same governor issued a proclamation saying the St.
Francis/Sokoki Band was the only tribal government in Vermont.

The tribe won an aboriginal fishing and hunting rights lawsuit in state
Superior Court, only to have it overturned in an appeal by the state in the
U.S. Supreme Court on the state's claim that the tribe doesn't exist.

While claiming the tribe doesn't exist, the state has purchased land for
the repatriation of the bodies of ancestors that had been dug up by private
land owners.

The tribe also received a federal grant to help put together its petition
for federal recognition. Most of the work was done by tribal members with
the help of consultants, Merrill said.

"It a long battle, but the fight is not over. We have to keep going for our
children's sale. Whatever we do today is for the next seven generations.
That's the way we've always looked at it," Merrill said.