Vermont commission seeks clarity on recognition authority

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Decision would affect the labeling of artists' and artisans' work

MONTPELIER, Vt. - The Vermont Commission on Native American Affairs has asked state lawmakers to clarify who has the authority to recognize the state's Abenaki tribes and bands for the purpose of labeling Native artists and artisans' work under the federal Indian Arts and Crafts Act of 1990.

An unresolved difference of opinion between the commission and Deputy Attorney General William Griffin over who has that authority currently has left the state's indigenous artists without the protection of the federal Arts and Crafts law.

Commission Chairman Mark Mitchell, Abenaki, said the bill passed last year, which recognized the state's ''Abenaki people'' and created the commission, cited the 1990 act and vested the commission with the authority to develop criteria for recognizing tribes and bands for the purpose of permitting the creation, labeling and sale of Native arts and crafts. Under the commission's proposed criteria, it would then be up to the individual tribe or band to certify individual artists as enrolled or nonenrolled tribal members.

Griffin said the bill already recognized the state's ''Abenaki people'' and that the commission's role is to recognize individual Native artists. Under his draft procedure, individual artists would have to submit a long list of documents to the commission to support a claim of being a ''Western Abenaki craftsperson.''

Meredith Stanton, executive director of the federal Indian Arts and Crafts Board, which oversees the implementation of the act, said the state bill's language was too ambiguous to determine who has the authority to recognize tribes and bands.

By consensus, the commission decided at its March 22 meeting to ask legislators to amend the original state law to clarify its authority.

''With the difference between the deputy attorney general's opinion and the commission's opinion over the statutory interpretation of the state bill, it would prevent even our criteria for identifying tribes or bands from possibly being acknowledged by the Arts and Crafts Board without a legislative solution. I believe it's within our authority to adopt the criteria, but not enter it into practice; and I also believe it's a powerful tool to assist us in amending the bill,'' Mitchell told Indian Country Today.

The commission has drafted the language for the amendment, which reads: ''The Commission is legislatively vested with State tribal recognition authority as provided in [U.S. federal law citations] to permit the creation, display and sale of Native American arts and crafts and legally to label them as Indian- or Native American-produced.''

Griffin did not return several calls seeking comment on whether he would support or oppose the proposed amendment.

Commission members spent an hour or more discussing and refining the criteria they have drafted over the past eight months. The draft is almost ready for adoption, Mitchell said.

''It's my hope as the chairman before we break for the summer - we're taking June and July off - that we at least adopt the criteria, because again I believe it's a powerful tool to show the legislative body that we've done a tremendous job as a commission to meet what we believe is our established authority,'' Mitchell said.

The commission agreed to ask for a legislative amendment out of respect for the process, Mitchell said.

''My two options are challenging the language in a court of law, which certainly doesn't interest me - or simply asking the Legislature to clarify and amend the act for us to be able to do what they requested us to do in the first place,'' Mitchell said.

The amendment has been e-mailed to state senators and representatives, but time is running out on the legislative session.

''I don't have a full-time staff to lobby for me in Montpelier. All commission members have professional lives. We're hoping that Sen. Vince Illuzi, Rep. Carolyn Branagan and others will begin to help us with it. The real question is, will anyone try to block it?'' Mitchell said.

So far, Griffin has not made any public announcement opposing the amendment.

''I would hope he would support the commission's opportunity to ask the legislative body to amend the bill. I can only hope,'' Mitchell said.

Meanwhile, the commission continues to seek comments from Indian country on the proposed amendment and changes to the proposed criteria, which are posted on the commission's Web site at www.vcnaa.com.

''We still will take comments from anybody in Indian country. We received hundreds of e-mails and they all support the commission and believe we can certify tribes and bands for Arts and Crafts. But right now Native artists in Vermont can't sell their products with certification. So long as there's this confusion, we're certainly not going to subject Indian country to apply to a process that may be meaningless. We'll wait for the Legislature to amend before entering our criteria into practice,'' Mitchell said.

The commission will meet again on April 26.