Two bands of the Abenaki Nation are nearing state recognition as Native American Indian tribes after a decades-long struggle.
The tribes have met the criteria for recognition of a Native American tribe required by the Vermont Commission on Native American Affairs, which was established by Vermont law in 2010 and recommends tribes for recognition.
Tribes must provide evidence to meet nine criteria established by the commission including that the majority of members reside in a specific geographic location within the state’s borders and that a substantial number are related through kinship; that they have a well-documented historical connection with Vermont through archaeological, historical or ethnographic evidence; and that they cannot be recognized by another state or province.
Tribes submit their applications to the commission, then a three-member expert panel of scholars and professionals review them, and if all criteria are met, the commission recommends recognition. The Legislature can speed up official recognition by approving legislation recognizing a tribe, but if it takes no action, the recognition automatically becomes official two years after commission recommendation.
Two bands — the Elnu Abenaki in Windham County and the Nulhegan Band of the Coosuk Abenaki Nation in northeastern Vermont — gained state recognition last year. A bill in 2006 formally recognized the Abenaki as Native Americans, though it did not entitle them to any rights.
State recognition will open the door to educational and financial resources for the bands, such as federal Indian education funding for schools with Abenaki students, scholarships, and grants for economic development and cultural revitalization, according to Luke Willard, the commission’s chair.
On Feb. 14, two bands — the St. Francis-Sokoki Band of the Abenaki Nation at Missisquoi in northwestern Vermont and the Koasek Band of the Koas Abenaki Nation from the Connecticut River Valley near Newbury — made their cases before a joint hearing of the Senate Committee on Economic Development, Housing, and General Affairs and the House Committee on General, Housing and Military Affairs.
St. Francis-Sokoki band Chief John Churchill testified that state recognition will bring cultural pride to his band.
“Pride is a big thing. Whatever nationality one says you are, you don’t have to prove it. If you say you’re Abenaki or Native American, for some reason you have to prove it,” he said.
Roger Longtoe Sheehan, chief of Elnu Abenaki, testified on the positive cultural impact of recognition, particularly in his band’s relationship with other nations.
“It’s a pride thing so you can walk into a pow-wow and go to any sort of site that would be tied to the culture and be able to say, ‘We’re Abenaki,’” Sheehan said, later adding. “Unless you get state recognition, they basically won’t talk to you.”
Since recognition, the Elnu Abenaki have been invited to an annual canoe trip down the West Coast by regional bands. A similar though smaller event has been organized locally on the Connecticut River and New England coastline.
The St. Francis-Sokoki Band, whose 2,400 members span four counties in northwestern Vermont, has been working towards federal recognition since the early 1970s. However, a major obstacle for both the St. Francis-Sokoki and the Koasek has been finding documents supporting their cases to meet recognition criteria that a majority of members have continuously resided in a historical area.
Peter Thomas, the retired director of the University of Vermont’s archaeology program, questioned the logic of applying contemporary borders to an area that has been occupied by Native Americans for 11,000 years and the Abenaki since at least the 1600s.
“In terms of the majority of members residing in a specific geographic location in Vermont, I have never considered modern political boundaries as having any relevance to a community’s territory,” Thomas said.
All of the commission’s expert witnesses, each with a background in archaeology or history, spoke of the additional obstacle of finding records from the early Colonial era to modern times.
Because Abenaki territory spanned the borders of New Hampshire, Vermont, New York, and Canada, there was often confusion as to which geographic area Native Americans officially resided in. This has been a particular issue for the Koasek band, which has traditionally lived along the Connecticut River in what is now Newbury, Vt., and Haverhill, N.H. As part of the application process, the band had to show that the majority of its members – eventually found to be 58 percent – lived within Vermont.
Two major archaeological sites in Swanton have helped the cause of the St. Francis-Sokoki: a burial site dating back 2,200-2,800 years discovered in 1973 and a second burial site found in 2000 that contained the remains of 27 Abenaki, and artifacts from the 17th through 19th centuries.
Proving kinship ties and genealogy has been another challenge for the tribes. Though Jesuit missions recorded their contact with Abenaki, in the 18th and 19th centuries individuals from Native American or mixed background were often listed as “pagan” or “colored” in census data, not necessarily “Indian.” Vermont’s eugenics movement in the 1920s and 1930s further damaged record keeping.
“We’re not dealing with absolutes here. In my own family, there are 14 versions of the spelling of people’s names. English names. If you go a while back to the French, and the Abenaki, and the whole rest, the data is not clear-cut,” Thomas said.
Eloise Beil, an expert review panelist from the Lake Champlain Maritime Museum, made a similar point in her testimony that a lack of physical records was not uncommon for Native Americans.
“That’s the challenge of dealing with folk society, people who operate outside of power structures,” she said. “They operate based on oral traditions.”
However, for both the St. Francis-Sokoki and the Koasek, family documents from band members that had previously not been shared helped to piece together genealogy lines.
The St. Francis-Sokoki were rejected for federal status in the 1990s, a point which was questioned by committee members. However, Willard and Fred Wiseman, the chair of humanities at Johnson State College, were quick to defend the band in their testimony from what they saw as a lobbying game.
“It seems to take between $5 million and $12 dollars of funding and often times the operation of casinos prior to providing the information necessary to get the political clout in Washington to be able to get recognition,” Wiseman said.
Willard said the expensive process federal recognition was one of the reasons behind the creation of the Vermont commission.
“I can tell you that what my goal has been since I started with the commission was to nullify federal recognition,” Willard said. “Why do we need federal recognition if we have a state government that is willing to work with the tribes and is willing to enact state policy and legislation that will successfully meet the needs and empower the native people of the state? I just don’t see the sense in spending millions of dollars just so you can get a thumbs-up from people who are hundreds and hundreds of miles away.”
Willard was careful to note that the resources available to recognized bands should not be confused with “entitlements.”
“I prefer the term ‘rights.’ Try to look at it this way: If you are a recognized citizen of the United States, you have certain rights and resources available to you. If you are a recognized citizen of Canada, you have certain rights and resources available to you. Likewise, if you are a recognized citizen of a Native American Indian tribe, you have certain rights and resources available to you,” Willard said in an email.
Willard said he expects the Legislature and the governor to approve the bills this session. The Koasek Traditional Band of the Abenaki Nation, headquarted in the Thetford area, is likely the only remaining Abenaki tribe in Vermont that will seek recognition, Willard said.