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Wiseman: Trickster politics, A response to LaDonna Harris' letter

On Dec. 17, (Vol. 23 Iss. 27) Indian Country Today published a highly-partisan letter to deflect possible criticism of Howard Dean's record, including his dealings with Indians. In the letter, LaDonna Harris, chair of Dean's Native American Advisors Council, staked her reputation on the record of the former Vermont governor. Yet on Nov. 21, 2003, Harris, at her Americans for Indian Opportunity organization, received documentation from the Abenaki Tribal Museum concerning Dean's little known human rights record, so she is not ignorant of Native concerns. Thus far, the Abenaki Community has not received a response from Harris or the Dean Campaign. Discussion of Dean's record is not a "Republican ploy" as Harris asserts; it is suppressed history. As an ethnohistorian, Abenaki official and Indian rights activist, I have witnessed first hand the politics of ethnic destruction perpetrated by Dean and his allies.

Dean's "reaching out" to Vermont's indigenous community, as asserted on Nov. 20, actually consisted of trickster politics: of empty words, photo-ops and betrayal. His early superficial support for Abenaki culture, such as attending a 1993 pow wow, and signing a pro-Abenaki proclamation (authored by the Governor's Commission on Native American Affairs), was quickly undermined by his acting to suppress their rights and identity. The campaign's "spin" was to have Dean take credit for the work of the politically independent Commission on Native American Affairs, comprised of Abenaki Nation leaders and governor's appointees. In my 12-year tenure on the Commission, Dean officially met with us only once, a short press conference announcing a Native American curriculum guide. His celebrated support for an Abenaki museum was to hand a hard-won legislative appropriation check from the Vermont Legislature to the museum. Dean's assertion that he created a class on Native Americans? All he did was the press conference, mentioned above, announcing a Native American guide conceived by the Commission (which fought to obtain the funding), authored by Abenakis and teachers, and printed by the University of Vermont. Dean's only independent pro-Indian initiative after 1995 was to attend the funeral of his nemesis, Abenaki Chief Homer St. Francis.

Since at least 1995, Howard Dean has revealed an abiding dread of Indian sovereignty, viewing our constitutional rights as economic and political threats to states rights. Although the nearest Indian reservations were two to five hours away from Vermont, he implausibly asserted to Congressman Istook in 1997, "Although Vermont does not have any Indian land, we lose tax revenues from sales made from Indian lands near our borders." One might have thought New Hampshire, without a sales tax and with a long border with Vermont, was a greater problem. In 1999, Dean's spokeswoman said: "The governor fears state recognition would help the Abenaki gain federal recognition, and then in turn push for a casino and a reservation of their own. [I]f they got national recognition we'd have a host of other issues to deal with." Dean led Vermont's assault with anti-Abenaki oratory, culminating in his most passionate press conference on Jan. 17, 2002. Contrary to existing federal statute, Dean claimed "Not only would it (a pending state acknowledgement resolution) allow them to open gambling casinos without any input from the state, essentially, it would also paralyze anybody from getting a mortgage or selling their house for the foreseeable future."

Such inciting of prejudice against an ethnic group due to fear of the political and economic consequences of their gaining constitutional and human rights was an obvious prerequisite to human rights violation. Thus a fresh anti-Abenaki strategy was developed. Dean's fellow Democrat, close friend and confidant, Attorney General William Sorrell, was entrusted with crafting a final solution to the Abenaki problem. The Governor's Office outlined the scheme in 1995: "The position of the state is that in the late 1700s the Abenaki ceased functioning as a tribe, and although they have regrouped, it still doesn't meet the legal test." When the Governor's Commission learned of this anti-Abenaki campaign, it officially complained to Dean's Office, which reassured Chairman Benay that this "unethical activity would stop." Thus the Dean Administration had the power to stop this activity, but chose not to.

The next step was to disengage the State of Vermont from the Abenakis. As revealed by his Commissioner on Housing and Community Affairs to a combined Abenaki and Town committee in 2001, Dean's administration prohibited use of the word "Abenaki" by state employees or in state documents, for fear that it may give credence to the Abenakis' long-standing petition for federal recognition.

Weeks before Dean left office, the state released its public assault against the Abenakis' very identity. A Web site, lengthy written report, and lobbying campaign with the Vermont legislature promoted the falsehood that the Abenaki community was a genetic, cultural and political fraud perpetrated to get "special" privileges not available to other Vermonters.

This ethnically-defamatory campaign misquoted current scholarship, published outright lies, used confidential eugenics medical records, and republished copyrighted material among many other unethical tactics. When a furious Governor's Commission was poised to publicly refute this propaganda, Dean's Office issued its only direct command to the Commission during Dean's long tenure - to terminate any such plans. But the scholarly community responded in 2003.

William Haviland, former Chair of Anthropology at the University of Vermont said of the propaganda campaign, "It's a real hatchet job." James Petersen, current UVM chair, was so furious he said, "I myself would be happy to face Sorrell and Jacobs-Carnahan (the researcher who wrote the original report and Web site) in a court of law some day." This politically-motivated rewriting of Native American ethnic identity must be exposed for what it is and its perpetrators identified.

Dean's mentors are banking on ignorance and the supposed lack of compassion that the larger "Western" Indian political interests have for the more heavily colonized peoples of the Northeast. But no matter what his advisors allege, Howard Dean sees Indian sovereignty as a threat to states' rights, for his administration was willing to destroy Indian credibility to "protect" Vermont.

Abenakis had high hopes for Dean in the early 1990s, but were betrayed. Similarly, some national Indian leaders are hopeful now. Perhaps, as Indian County Today asserts, Dean can learn and grow, but our trickster has never apologized for his administration's betrayal of the Abenakis, even after his supposed "conversion" to support Native sovereignty. And Vermont's politically motivated campaign of ethnic nullification continues to this day. The history of Abenaki ethnocide must not be suppressed for political expediency, because Dean seems the least like President Bush. Other candidates have cleaner hands than our former Governor.

Frederick Matthew Wiseman, Ph.D., director of the Abenaki Tribal Museum and Cultural Center, was elected to the Abenaki Tribal Council and Governor's Commission on Native American Affairs by the Abenaki community. Wiseman teaches Native Studies at Johnson State College in Vermont. He is most well known as the author of many scholarly publications, including "The Voice of the Dawn, an autohistory of the Abenaki Nation" as well as his ardent defense of Native sovereignty against attacks by the State of Vermont. He is currently writing a trilogy for University Press of New England called "The Wabanaki World."