Abenaki State Recognition

Vermont State Recognition Achieved for The Abenaki Nation of Missisquoi

On Monday, May 7th, 2012, Vermont Governor Shumlin signed into law tribal recognition for the St. Francis-Sokoki Band of the Abenaki Nation at Missisquoi.

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Missisquoi Testimony for State Recognition

(Testimony from the Vermont Statehouse, 2010, outlining Missisquoi's plight to date.)

My Name is Jeff Benay, and I have consulted with the Abenaki for over 30 years.

I hold a Doctorate in Educational Leadership and Policy Analysis. I am a Phi Beta Kappa, Summa Cum Laude graduate with a Master’s Degree in Counseling, Organizational and Foundational Studies.

While my consulting takes me all over the world, today I am here as a Vermonter. I am proud to call the Green Mountain State my home, a place where I have raised my two children in a positive physical, cultural, and intellectual environment.

Still, I am a believer that we must confront the truth – however painful that sometimes is – in order for us to grow emotionally, intellectually and socially.

As such, I am thoroughly ashamed of how we have treated our original inhabitants.

Further, I am aghast that in the year 2010, we are mired in “politically correct” claptrap which continues to put off a fundamental civil right that many of us thought was finally righted on May 6, 2006, when Governor Douglas signed into law S.117, a bill giving supposed recognition to the Abenaki.

A few months later, we were shocked to find out that the language of the bill would not pass muster with the Federal Arts and Crafts Board thus denying Abenaki artisans the ability to sell their crafts as “native-made.”

Once again, the Abenaki had placed their faith in the State only to find out that the last-minute tinkering of the bill by the Attorney General’s Office thwarted their sought-after state recognition.

Four years later, on April 20th, I sit here again with the possibilities of recognition so near yet only to be thwarted this time by a well-intentioned legislator who speaks of “fairness and level playing fields”. The irony of these words cannot go unheeded.

I am reminded of a Tribal Elder‘s conversation with me:

“Equality to some people is when everyone is given a pair of moccasins; equity to us, however, is when everyone is given a pair that fits…”

This aphorism speaks to fairness, not sameness. It is the language of social justice and its applicability this afternoon is critical, indeed.

There is no group of Vermonters more subject to harsh political vagaries than the Abenaki.

In 1976, Governor Thomas Salmon granted State Recognition on Thanksgiving Day, affording the Abenaki unlimited hunting and fishing and creating a Governor's Commission on Native American Affairs.

Since that time, the Abenaki have been on a rollercoaster ride not for the faint of heart. In January of 1977, Governor Richard Snelling rescinded Recognition, saying he could not recognize a “sovereign nation within a sovereign state.”

This language, generated by lawyers, had no significance to the issue at hand. Sovereignty is afforded through the Federal Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA), not through State Recognition. In a 1983 Proclamation, Snelling indicated his support for the St. Francis/Sokoki band of the Abenaki and said these were the Abenaki he would support for Federal recognition.

Madeline Kunin, in three terms, said she was very concerned about the Abenaki plight. Still, it was only in one of her final Executive Orders that she established the Governor’s Advisory Commission on Native American Affairs. The order stated:

“It is the public policy of the State of Vermont to recognize the historic and cultural contribution of Native Americans to the State and to protect and strengthen that heritage by assuring that the problems and concerns of Native Americans are addressed in state policy, programs, and actions.”

Snelling, following Kunin for a second term of service to the state, left the order to stand.

In May of 1993, then Governor Howard Dean proclaimed the Abenaki presence of 10,000 years as seminal in Vermont history.

Nonetheless, Dean’s fear of casino gambling was reinforced as he interacted with governors from Western states. Dean looked for a way to offer the Abenaki state recognition without providing an opening for gambling.

Assistant Attorney General Bill Griffin advised him this was not possible.

Thus began an assault from the Executive Branch that was devastating.

Dean refused to address Homer St.Francis as “Chief.”

I actually received a phone call from a person in the State government asking if I had any “dirt” on the Abenaki.

If you find this incredulous, contact Nancy Gallagher and others who received similar phone calls.

When I asked David Rocchio, Howard Dean’s legal counsel about this, he said, “I am really sorry about this. I knew it was a mistake. It will stop right now.”

Though Dean’s position softened toward the end of his tenure, his administration continued to fear State recognition as Griffin continually reinforced the specious connection between recognition and gambling.

Once the Abenaki felt they had exhausted the Executive Branch of government, they turned to the Judiciary entity.

Through repeated acts of civil disobedience, the Abenaki were cited for fishing without licenses. They appeared in court and won a stunning decision against the State, thus allowing for hunting and fishing. The State’s attorney was in shock. He had little idea of the painstaking scholarship the Abenaki would present in court.

Judge Joseph Wolchek, one of the great jurists in Vermont’s history, wrote a 96-page opinion granting the Abenaki aboriginal rights.

At this same time in 1989, the State appealed to the Supreme Court. In a hastily written decision, the Court ruled against the Abenaki.

That opinion contains an infamous argument of “the increasing weight of history rules against the Abenaki.”

This argument is so inane it is used today in Native American law courses as an example of political bias in the court system.

Thus, once again the Abenaki were thwarted in their hopes for a better tomorrow for Abenaki children.

Therefore, the legislative route was the only feasible one left at the State level. Yes, the Abenaki could apply for Federal Recognition through the Bureau of Indian Affairs, and they jumped through that hoop.

They submitted a solid case.

Yet the BIA process was highly politicized. Several years ago, Senator Strom Thurmond was Chair of the committee overseeing the Department of the Interior, the umbrella agency for the Bureau.

He stated, “Over my dead body will any Indian tribe get Federal recognition on my watch.”

His statement was realized as no tribe was recognized during his tenure.

Only last year the Mashpee of Massachusetts were the first group to obtain the coveted Federal Recognition in many years.

Their Chief was quoted as saying it took over 8 million dollars to gain recognition. One of the largest expenses was for lobbyists who worked in the Nation’s capital. Unfortunately, the Abenaki lacked any funds, much less millions of dollars, and they were denied recognition.

Thus, Federal Recognition was no longer an option, and the decision was made to continue the quest for state recognition.

State Recognition was requested to enable Abenaki artists to sell their goods without fear of violating an Arts and Crafts statute limiting craft sales to State or Federally-recognized tribes.

More importantly, State Recognition would allow Abenaki children to access educational opportunities, and it would allow the Abenaki to lay claim to their rich heritage with pride.

State Recognition acknowledges the existence of the Abenaki people in spite of historical attempts to eradicate them.

As noted by the National Trust for Historic Preservation, “The Vermont Eugenics Survey of 1925 and the sterilization law of 1931, which were intended to anglicize the state’s population, identified the Abenaki as undesirable – along with Catholics, such as French Canadians, Irish, and Italians; Jews, the poor; the mentally ill; and criminals.”

Many members of Abenaki families who were investigated by the Eugenics Survey were also incarcerated in institutions and subsequently sterilized.

Still, the Abenaki survived for seven generations and have worked hard to better themselves and provide opportunities for their children.

The extraordinary advances made by these resilient people are remarkable.

As late as 1981, the dropout for heads of households in Swanton and Highgate, the traditional homeland of the Missisquoi Abenaki, was 70%, with 50% leaving school before the ninth grade.

Of those graduating, fewer than 5% pursued any post-secondary opportunities.

Last year – the class of 2009 – saw a dropout rate of under 3%, and 63% of graduating Abenakis went on to college.

These statistics are impressive, and they speak to a people who as late as 1989 were considered the prevailing Abenaki in the State.

When I was asked by the late Governor Richard Snelling and then Governor Howard Dean to Chair the Governor’s Advisory Commission on Native American Affairs, the language designating this Commission asked for three members from the Abenaki Tribal Council.

At that time, there was one group the State knew of and that was Missisquoi. Yet, as long as I have worked in Swanton, there has always been a sense of collaboration whereby if an educational advancement could be shared with others, it would be.

At Commission meetings, it would have been easy to keep every initiative close to home as dozens were developed. Still, I was repeatedly told to disseminate our programs with others. Thus, the Missisquoi Mentoring Project, which matched adults with children at need and was a highly successful initiative, is now the Watershed Mentoring Project of Franklin and Grand Isle Counties.

The Sovereign Abenaki Nation of Missisquoi (St.Francis/Sokoki Band) could have gone through the state recognition process alone as its presence was best known to legislators throughout Vermont. Yet no, leadership decided it would be best for Abenaki children throughout the State to benefit from a collaboration, and the Alliance was formed with the other historically verifiable bands. Missisquoi's leadership was castigated by those who said it wasn’t necessary to join with others.

Yet, this Bill — S222 – represents a beginning. It is a foundation of sorts that finally gives credence to those who have fought their entire lives to see the fruition of State Recognition.

In conclusion, allow me a few thoughts:

The bill before you has not been written in isolation. It is a collaboration of dozens of committed Vermonters who want to finally “get it right” and give substance to the Abenaki presence.

The current Vermont Commission on Native American Affairs has had ample opportunity for input and its Chair- Charlie Delaney – is an ongoing participant.

To say at this juncture that “there are others who had no knowledge of our deliberations and have not had the chance to make their case” is a specious statement that undermines the work of lay people and legislators alike who have tried to be as grass-roots as possible in forging a bill.

Participation in a democratic state is predicated on the notion that we can agree to disagree yet still move beyond speculative rhetoric, which is based on emotional gut feeling.

In other words, policy-making is for the common good, not the misguided ranting of a few individuals who represent themselves and a handful of other bitter people who have little regard for the next seven generations.

It is to the future of the Abenakis I implore you to act…now. It is for the children.

Jeff Benay
Fairfax, VT
(802) 849-2147

(Copyright © 2012. The content of this page, text are the property of Jeff Benay. Missisquoi Abenaki Tribal Council has been given authorization to use this article, text in full, on their website.)