Native Americans testify on Abenaki recognition bill

By John Curran
Montpelier, Vermont (AP) 2-08

American Indians should be the ones who decide whether Vermont clans, tribes and bands are officially recognized, not the Vermont Legislature.

That was the message given to a legislative panel trying to address shortcomings in a 2006 law that recognized Abenakis as a minority population but not as a tribe.

Several Abenakis – some wearing beaded head bands and “Native Pride” clothing – testified about how the Legislature should address the law, which didn’t give Abenakis the authority to label their crafts as Indian made, as sponsors apparently intended.

Lawmakers are entertaining an amendment under which the state Commission on Native American Affairs would recommend to the Legislature whether to recognize a state tribe as Native American, giving lawmakers the final say.

“I don’t think the Legislature has that right to say who is and who isn’t a tribe,” said April St. Francis Merrill, of Highgate Springs, chief of the St. Francis-Sokoki band of the Abenaki Tribe. “There should be historical documents. There should be strict criteria and tribal roles for these tribes. There shouldn’t be oral histories,” she said.

Howard F. Knight, Jr., 66, of Newport, a retired chief of the Koasek Traditional Council of the Sovereign Abenaki Nation, said the Vermont Commission on Native American Affairs should have the power to grant formal recognition, not the Legislature.

“Knowing who and who is not a true craftsperson or artisan has always been the traditional way of our people. That tradition should not be interfered with in any way by those who are not knowledgeable as to our ancient, traditional ways,” Knight said.

Vera Longtoesheehan, of Westminster, a member of the Elnu Abenaki Tribe who serves as its tribal genealogist and works as an artisan, said she has had problems with labeling.

“I cannot label things Indian-made or Native American made or say `Granddaughter of ..’ because, obviously, that would be a problem with the federal statutes. The work I do is museum-quality work. I’ve tried to get my work into museums through the years, but I’ve been turned down because I can’t say this is `Indian made.”’

State Sen. Hinda Miller, who chaired the meeting of the Senate Committee on Economic Development, Housing & General Affairs, said the panel would have more hearings on the subject before acting on the bill.

“Our children and our children’s children are all going to be affected by what happens,” Longtoesheehan told Miller.