Vermont panel urges state to recognize Elnu Abenaki, Nulhegan Band

By Lisa Rathke
Montpelier, Vermont (AP) January 2011

Decades after the first Abenaki Indians sought state recognition, two tribes might get that chance.

A panel organized to set up a process for state recognition of Indian tribes in Vermont recommended last week that the Legislature recognize the Elnu Abenaki, based in Jamaica in southern Vermont, and the Nulhegan Band of the Coosuk Abenaki Nation, based in Brownington in northern Vermont. The step could allow the tribes to sell its crafts as Indian-made and seek federal education grants.

“This has been going on for a long time and I do believe 2011 is the year,” said Commission Chairman Luke Willard, the former chief of the Nulhegan Band.

In their applications for state recognition, the tribes met certain criteria documented by membership and genealogical records, which show they are descended from identified Vermont or regional Native people, according to the Vermont Commission on Native American Affairs. The applications were reviewed by independent scholars, the commission said.

The Legislature will now review the findings and has the final say, under a new state law.

“In addition to recognizing the historical presence of these Native American tribes we do believe that this is a major step forward in helping to educate not only Vermonters but also Americans and others around the world that we do indeed take pride in and embrace the Native American culture, the Abenaki culture,” said state Sen. Vincent Illuzzi, the panel’s chairman.

At least 1,700 Vermont residents say they are direct descendants of the Western Abenaki tribes that inhabited all of Vermont and New Hampshire, and parts of Maine, Quebec and New York, for hundreds of years before the arrival of the Europeans. They include the Missisquoi and Cowasuck Abenaki who farmed the river floodplains of Vermont at least as long ago as A.D. 1100s, according to the law, which passed in 2010.

But the state of Vermont has been reluctant to recognize the Abenaki, in the past fearing it could bolster one tribe’s bid to win federal recognition, which opponents said could lead to land claims and gambling casinos. Over the years, the Vermont attorney general’s office has questioned the Abenaki tribe’s heritage in Vermont and opposed federal recognition, which the Missisquoi tribe was denied in 2007. The Missisquoi tribe is now expected to seek state recognition.

The process has been bittersweet, said Don Stevens, chief of the Nulhegan Band, who said his ancestors were caught up in the eugenics survey.

Many Vermont residents of mixed French-Canadian and Native American heritage, as well as poor, rural whites, were placed on a state-sanctioned list of “mental defectives” and degenerates in the 1930s and placed in state institutions. Some had surgery after Gov. Stanley Wilson in 1931 won enactment of a sterilization law.

“Recognition to us gives us back our identity, allows our people to sell their arts and crafts, and to be able to participate as Native American people,” said Stevens, who said the Nulhegan Band has 260 members.