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Vermont recognition authority for Indian artists to be explored

MONTPELIER, Vt. - The Vermont Commission on Native American Affairs will participate this summer in a study group that will work to clarify a state law that has led to gridlock over the authority to recognize the state's Abenaki tribes and bands for the purpose of labeling Native productions under the federal Indian Arts and Crafts Act of 1990.

The commission has tabled an amendment to last year's legislation that would have clearly stated its authority to recognize the tribes and bands, and accepted Gov. Jim Douglas' offer of the study group, commission chairman Mark Mitchell, Abenaki, said.

''We're not going to get a lot done on an amendment because we submitted it too late, so the governor is certainly interested and concerned because we're at an impasse right now, and he offered up the opportunity to participate in a summer study group. The commission reached consensus at our last meeting that as long as the door's open and the governor invited us to the table, we're taking him up on his offer,'' Mitchell said.

The 2006 legislation recognized Vermont's Abenaki ''people,'' created the commission and gave it the authority, among other things, to ''permit the creation, display and sale of Native American arts and crafts and legally to label them as Indian- or Native American-produced'' as provided in the federal Indian Arts and Crafts Act of 1990.

But when the commission began drafting criteria to recognize tribes and bands, state Assistant Attorney General William Griffin stepped in and said it was authorized only to recognize individual artists, not tribes or bands.

The federal law requires Native artists to belong to ''any Indian group that has been formally recognized as an Indian tribe by a State legislature or by a State commission or similar organization legislatively vested with State tribal recognition authority.''

Indian Arts and Crafts Board director Meredith Stanton described the Vermont situation as ''odd'' and said the state legislation does not meet the federal act's requirements.

Was fear of federal recognition behind the Legislature's decision to recognition the Abenaki as ''people'' rather than as a tribe?

''Absolutely!'' Mitchell said. ''The law is recognizing the Abenaki as a minority. I think there's a lot of misconceptions out there which cause fear, which has been rampant in Vermont for years. If you provide state recognition for the purpose of the Indian Arts and Crafts Act, some people think you're going to have land claims, you're going to have casinos opening in the state of Maine, you're going to have federal recognition,'' Mitchell said.

Mitchell said the state has only two options to protect Native artists under the federal law: either the Legislature has to grant state recognition to the Abenaki tribes or bands, or it must vest that authority in the commission.

The study group will likely include himself; Suzanne Young, the governor's legal counsel; a representative from the attorney general's office; perhaps some state representatives; and ''hopefully, an attorney experienced in Indian law, perhaps someone from the Human Rights Council,'' Mitchell said. The commission has no budget and is seeking an attorney who would be willing to help on a pro bono basis.

Young said the first step would be for her and Mitchell to meet as soon as possible after the legislative session ends to decide how to approach the problem and whether to establish a formal or ad hoc group ''with the commitment that we will try to come to a resolution that everyone can get on board with.''

The problem, Young said, is ''there are different opinions on what the Legislature intended to do with the bill, what the bill actually does and what is actually necessary.''

Asked if the fact that many different interpretations attests to the law's murkiness, Young said it is ''not unusual for legislative intent and what ends up on paper'' to contradict each other.

Only the legislators who drafted the bill could explain why they recognized the Abenaki as ''people'' rather than as a tribe, Young said, but she speculated that it may have had something to do with the fact that the St. Francis/Sokoki Band of Abenaki Nation of Missisquoi's petition for federal recognition is still pending.

The St. Francis/Sokoki Band was denied federal acknowledgement in a proposed finding in November 2004 and expects a final determination in June.

''I would expect if they'd be federally recognized this issue would disappear,'' Young said.