Gwendolyn Hallsmith: It was wrong to call Vermont Abenaki ‘fake people’

This commentary is by Gwendolyn Hallsmith, a resident of Cabot who’s affiliated with Vermonters for a New Economy,

Given the central role the University of Vermont played in the eugenics movement of the last century, one would think it might be wise to be very, very cautious when wading into international tribal politics. 

Apparently that wisdom was lost on UVM when it decided to host a group of people claiming Indigenous legitimacy to denounce Vermont Native Americans without offering the tribes here an opportunity to speak up at the same event.

The eugenics movement targeted Native Americans in Vermont for sterilization. It was enshrined in law, funded by the state, and led by Professor Henry Perkins at UVM. In 1931, the law passed promoting the practice; the last sterilization was performed in 1957. Professor Perkins received a letter from Adolf Hitler commending his work.

When the Abenaki applied for federal recognition back in 1980, one of the main reasons it was denied was “lack of evidence of tribal activity” during the period when the Vermont Abenaki were being targeted for sterilization. This is the moral equivalent of denying Jewish people rights because they didn’t attend synagogue during the Holocaust.

In that same denial, there are pages of documentation about the Vermont connection to the Obamsawin clan; it even warranted its own section of the report. Genealogical research that is complicated by centuries of genocide, repression and active discrimination seems an impossible task.  Nonetheless, the concluding paragraph of the report on the denial of tribal recognition states: “… there is sufficient evidence in the record to verify that eight members of the SSA (the group that applied for recognition) descend from Simon Obomsawin, who once belonged to the St. Francis, or Odanak, Indian community, and who can be traced to the historical Missisquoi Abenaki Indian tribe through lists of Indians belonging to St. Francis, or Odanak.”

So when the speakers at this event called the Vermont Abenakis “fake people” who were essentially committing “cultural appropriation,” they were wrong.  The entire premise for their attack on Vermont Abenaki was a lie. 

One might wonder why. Might it be because the same people admitted at the event that they plan to pursue land claims in Vermont? Regardless of their motives, the fact that our flagship university promoted their position without rebuttal should be a big issue for all Vermonters, regardless of your heritage.

The tribal recognition game is another example of white people getting it wrong. Forcing Native Americans to jump through the high and flaming hoops of the recognition process before having access to economic benefits is a direct result of the genocidal displacement of Native Americans by European colonizers. It has exacerbated tensions among First Nations and Native Americans, tying them up in divisive knots that keep them from uniting to challenge our cultural domination. 

We need to acknowledge our racist and genocidal past and make reparations to all Native Americans and people of color who have suffered from systemic racism and its legacy of crippling economic inequality.

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