Abenaki bands protest recognition process

By Lisa Rathke
East Montpelier, Vermont (AP) 3-08

Three Vermont Abenaki bands and some former members of a Governor’s Commission on Native American Affairs said they were insulted by a proposed process for recognizing the Abenakis and didn’t trust current commission members who would review their status.

An amendment being considered by the state Senate is intended to address problems with a 2006 law that recognized Abenakis as a minority population, but not as a tribe for the purposes of selling their crafts as Native American.

The bill grants immediate conditional recognition to three bands – Koasek Traditional Band of the Sovereign Abenaki Nation, the St. Francis/Sokoki Band of the Nation of Missisquoi and the Nulhegan Band of the Abenaki Nation – provided that they apply to the commission by Aug. 1 for recognition.

The attorney general’s office, which has questioned the Abenaki’s heritage in Vermont and opposed federal recognition for the tribe, also would review the application and make recommendations to the commission, which has until Jan. 1, 2009 to decide whether the recognition should stand or be revoked.

April Rushlow Merrill, chief of the Swanton/St. Albans Abenaki Tribe, considered the process and the inclusion of the attorney general’s office a slap in the face, after the state granted the Abenaki’s recognition.

“I’ve been going through this my entire life with the state of Vermont, the Attorney General’s office,” she said teary-eyed.

“I thought we could change what needed to be done ... for our people,” she said.

The bands also said they opposed the criteria for recognition and would not provide their tribe’s genealogy to the commission.

The bill is unacceptable and dangerously similar to the ‘show me your papers,’ sentiment of Nazi Germany,” said Luke Willard, of the Nulhegan Bank of the Coosuk Abenaki Nation.

Merrill went on to say that the commission doesn’t represent her and questioned the heritage of some commission members.

State Sen. Vincent Illuzzi, R-Essex-Orleans, chairman of the Senate committee on Economic Development, Housing & General Affairs, which approved the bill Friday, said the bill assures that all Abenakis have a way to be recognized, after some complained they were not being treated equally.

“I’m sorry that they (the three bands) see the bill as hostile to their interests. It’s really intended to be supportive of their presence and work here in the state,” he said.

Despite the differences, all sides praised the collaboration and unification of the three bands.

“Some bands are sitting together and are united against a darkness, a common darkness of betrayal,” said Fred Wiseman, a Abenaki tribal historian.

“In my lifetime, I never thought this would happen,” said Jeff Benay, the former commission chairman.