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Vermont Commission on Native American Affairs sheds members

MONTPELIER, Vt. – For the second time in less than a year, the chairman and a member of the Vermont Commission on Native American Affairs has quit.

Donald Stevens, a member of the St. Francis/Sokoki Band of Abenaki Indians of Missisquoi, who served as a member since the commission was established in 2006, was appointed chairman by Gov. Jim Douglas last September. He resigned May 5 after a frustrating five months on the job.

Commission member Paul Bell followed with his resignation a few weeks later.

“When you appointed me as chairman,” Stevens wrote to the governor May 5, “my agenda was to bring together the Native peoples of Vermont to work toward common goals like education, celebrating our heritage and to also work on other critical items such as unmarked burial laws and recognition.

“However, what has happened is quite the opposite. I have been unable to bring the tribes into a working relationship with the commission and I have also been unable to get all the commission members to work together with the Vermont tribal leaders. There are too many personal conflicts to overcome all of the challenges needed to be a successful commission at this time. Until changes are made by your office, our Native people will continue to suffer this continuing conflict.”

Stevens was appointed after Mark Mitchell, the commission’s first chairman, submitted a letter of resignation Sept. 1, 2008, declining to be reappointed as chairman for another term.

“Quite frankly, I feel that I have been put in an untenable situation from the onset in that the VT Commission on Native American Affairs has established powers which are illusory; that is, how can the Commission maintain said established powers unless the State concomitantly recognizes Native peoples residing within its borders. In other words, how can the State of Vermont establish a Commission with established authority yet at the same time failing to recognize the Native Americans, i.e. the Abenaki as delineated historically as the St.Francis/Sokoki Band of the Missisquoi?” Mitchell said in his letter of resignation to the governor.

Mitchell is also a member of the St. Francis/Sokoki Band of Abenaki Indians of Missisquoi.

“To simply not address the recognition issue because of political nuance is nothing short of shameful in the year 2008,” Mitchell said, adding that he was resigning “since lack of respect by the Vermont Legislature leaves me no other choice.”

Bell was appointed by Douglas Jan. 16 to replace commission member Charlene McManis, who resigned last November. Bell, who submitted his resignation to Douglas May 26, could not be reached for comment.

Stevens did not know the contents of Bell’s resignation letter to the governor, but said Bell had used the word “toxic” in reference to the commission.

“I wish him the best and I understand how he felt. I hope that this sends a strong signal to both the Vermont Legislative Assembly and also to the governor’s office that they really need to step up to the plate and address the Native issues in Vermont and to finally fix the broken commission. I hope that this also lets the legislative body know that appointments to the commission and working directly with the tribes is the only way to resolve ongoing conflicts with the state of Vermont,” Stevens said.

The governor’s office did not return calls seeking comment.

Stevens and Mitchell attribute the chaos on the commission to the flawed 2006 legislation – S. 117 – that recognized Vermont’s Abenaki “people,” rather than the St.Francis/Sokoki Band of the Missisquoi and other historic band of Abenakis, created the commission and gave it the authority, among other things, to permit the sale of Native American arts and crafts under the federal Indian Arts and Crafts Act of 1990.

The act requires individual Native artists to be members of officially state recognized tribes. Official recognition can be granted by the legislature or by a state commission that has been given authority to grant recognition.

But when the commission began drafting criteria to recognize tribes and bands, the state attorney general’s office stepped in and claimed the commission was authorized only to recognize individual artists, not tribes or bands.

A two-year jurisdictional battle ensued between commission members, the tribes, bands, individual American Indians, the attorney general’s office and the legislature. Attempts to amend S. 117 either for the state to recognize the tribes or give the commission the authority to do so failed.

The situation entered the realm of the ridiculous when Jesse Larocque, a master Abenaki basket maker, was issued a cease and desist order from the Indian Arts and Crafts Board to stop labeling his work as made by an Abenaki Indian while receiving federal funds for his basket making from another federal agency.

The chaos caused by the lack of recognition by the state was exacerbated by inter-tribal conflict among commission members with loyalties to an Abenaki community across the Canadian border.

“It’s kind of embarrassing that the state doesn’t recognize its Natives,” Stevens said. “But the thing was nothing was happening and it was going to be another year and a half of constant conflict and it finally came to a head and I said, enough, I’m going to be able to do more on my own working with the legislature, and also it may shake up things a bit to know you had two chairmen resign and, obviously, if you can’t get the tribes to work with the commission and the commission to work with the tribes, it’s kind of a dead issue.”

Without an officially defined Native community the commission was doomed from the start, Mitchell said.

“The legislature continues to lack a social consciousness to address S. 117 and provide resolution to their created problem. It appears now that the commission seems to be lacking continuity and is simply unorganized. It’s downright silly and unintelligent to think the commission can solve current issues facing the Abenaki people of Vermont. It is time for the legislature to define a Native community or abolish the commission.”