For artisans, recognition discrepancy spells identity crisis 5-6-07

- Judy Dow, an Abenaki, has been making baskets for 40 years.

She displays some in museums, sells others, and gives many away. To her, they're a way of keeping alive a tradition she fears might otherwise disappear.

What she says she can't do - because of a quirk in Vermont law - is label them “Native American made.”

“I know who I am,” she said. “People don't really say to me, 'Is this an Abenaki basket?”' They know I'm Abenaki.”

Last year, Vermont lawmakers granted state recognition to the Abenaki, who say they are descendants of what's known as the Western Abenaki tribes.

A goal was to permit the Abenaki to create, sell and display their crafts as Indian-made. A commission was set up to help do just that.

But the state law granting them recognition conflicts with a federal law designed to prevent the sale of fraudulent American Indian art because it doesn't give the commission the authority to recognize tribes, said Mark Mitchell, an Abenaki who chairs the state's Commission on Native American Affairs.

The Vermont law recognizes the Abenaki as a people, not a tribe.

North Carolina and Virginia have commissions that identify tribes that are not federally recognized for the purposes of selling arts and crafts.

But the Vermont Attorney General's office says Vermont's commission doesn't have or need the authority to recognize tribes for the artists' sake.

The federal law “is a truth-in-marketing type act. If somebody really has Native American ancestry, there's nothing to prevent them from saying that,” said Assistant Attorney General Mike McShane.

But the federal Indian Arts and Crafts Board, which is part of the U.S. Department of Interior, identifies an Indian as a member of a tribe. “If you are not an enrolled member of state or federal tribe and you are not certified as a nonmember Indian artisan by a tribe of this descent, then you are in violation of the act,” said Meredith Stanton, executive director of the Indian Arts and Crafts Board.

“This thing that Vermont has done is completely different than we've seen in the past,” she said. “I would hope that the state (Vermont) would bring some clarity to their law.”

The state Commission on Native American Affairs has proposed giving itself the power to recognize the various Abenaki bands or tribes in Vermont. But the state has resisted; The governor's legal counsel plans to seek a solution to the dilemma this summer.

For Dow, 53, a commission member who started making baskets when she was 10 and learned the techniques from a number of tribes, the issue is a sore spot. It is to others, too.

“It's a crime to say you're Abenaki and sell your craft,” said Jesse Larocque, who makes black ash baskets in West Danville. “To me it's more irritating than it is anything else. The letter of the law is what they're fighting about rather than spirit of the law.”

The federal law is intended to prevent fraudulent people from exploiting Native Americans and their art, he said.

“What the governor signed into law was supposed to be a good thing,” he said. “Then we've got somebody else reinterpreting the law.”

For now, artisans can sell their work labeled as made by an artist of Abenaki descent, said Ken Van Wey, program assistant for the Indian Arts and Crafts Board.

That label sounds to Mitchell like “second class.”

Dow, who makes baskets out of wood and bark, among other things, says she never imagined her art could cause such controversy.

“How could basketry be seen as political?” she said.