As Abenaki Bills Pass, A Look at Where Vermont’s Indigenous Tribes Stand

Monica Donovan 12 Oct 2020

“For all of us, becoming indigenous to a place means living as if your children’s future mattered, to take care of the land as if our lives, both material and spiritual, depended on it.”
― Robin Wall Kimmerer, Braiding Sweetgrass

Just over four years ago, Democratic Gov. Peter Shumlin proclaimed Columbus Day as Indigenous People’s Day by executive order. And last year, in April, Vermont passed a bill permanently abolishing Columbus Day in favor of Indigenous Peoples’ Day. We joined a small handful of states who had passed similar legislation.

We’re just a little less behind the curve than everyone else, because this year, as Black Lives Matter protests rage across the country, statues of Christopher Columbus have been beheaded, covered with red paint, lassoed around the head and pulled down, set on fire and thrown into a lake, to name a few.

Members of AIM Twin Cities and other Native community residents topple the statue of Christopher Columbus located on the Minnesota State Capitol grounds in St. Paul on Wednesday, June 10, 2020. Ben Hovland for the Pioneer Press

Many of these protests have been led by Native American activists, some facing off with counter protesters armed with guns. It’s clear that in the wake of the killing of George Floyd, America’s multiple, entangled histories of racism are being thoroughly trawled, as they should, in a search for the roots of ongoing prejudice.

Vermont is often celebrated as a contemporary refuge for independent and progressive thinkers. But not enough people are aware that less than 100 years ago, the state was an isolationist bastion in which Native Americans had to hide their identities to avoid sterilization – and that a fear of self-identification still exists amongst those fractured communities today.

Abenaki in Vermont: A Brief History

“My ancestors experienced centuries of warfare, disease, settlement in their homeland, the effects of colonization, the eugenic sterilization project and decades of identity wars that did not end until 2012,” Elnu Abenaki educator, activist, and artist Melody Walker Brook said in a TedXStowe talk in 2018.

16th century Aztec drawing of smallpox victims

The Abenaki, and their ancestors, have lived in Vermont for 12,000 years – but in just the last 500 years, their population has been decimated. Before the Europeans brought the plagues that struck northeastern North America as early as 1535, researchers estimated that the native population of New England numbered more than 90,000.

As Europeans settled this region in the 1600s, choosing the most fertile lands with the majority of natural resources used by the Abenaki, the tribes were pushed to the outer reaches of Vermont. Facing annihilation, many Abenaki began emigrating to Canada, then under French control, around 1669.

The Abenaki who chose to remain in the United States did not fare as well as their Canadian counterparts. Compounding the displacement of the Abenaki from their land, the state of Vermont aimed to further reduce Abenaki presence in the early 20th century through eugenics policies such as forced sterilization.

“Vermont is not white by mistake. It’s not just a happenstance. I would actually say that we’re not ahead, we’re very far behind.”

Children who spoke the Algonquian language in school were punished. Many Abenaki disguised their identity or fled the country, further fracturing the indigenous community. Poverty, prejudice and dependence on the white economy characterized their lives and promoted the tendency to conceal one’s indigenous identity.

“Vermont is not white by mistake,” said Rutland NAACP President Tabitha Moore in an interview with the Rutland Herald in September. “It’s not just a happenstance. I would actually say that we’re not ahead, we’re very far behind.”

Moore, an outspoken Black Lives Matter activist, suspended her bid for high bailiff in Rutland County after she and her family faced racially motivated threats and harassment. The harassment was so severe that Moore is actually now moving for her and her family’s protection.

We know that racism exists, everywhere – and that it’s prevalent throughout our state. But why exactly is Vermont so white?

Cleophie O’Bomsawin and Family weaving baskets at their workshop in Old Forge, NY.Circa 1920. Courtesy of the Adirondack Museum.

The Last Great White Hope

In the 1920s, Vermont was seen as “the last great white hope” of New England by those who were fearful of immigrants coming to America. Many factors converged to produce what could only be described as the well-documented Intolerance of the time.

After World War I, isolationism grew throughout the states. Americans retrenched within their borders, some reviving the Ku Klux Klan as a way to rally against immigrants and Catholics. Klan organizations gained a foothold in several Vermont communities.

[They] resented the influx of French Canadians, who were not only Catholic but also willing to accept lower wages than native-born workers.

The KKK rallied citizens in Vermont throughout the early 1920s, with ten thousand attending a Montpelier gathering and five thousand attending in Morrisville. The hooded hate group wanted a “pure and Protestant” bastion; The Abenakis were not targeted as such, but if Catholic, they were considered alien to the KKK.

Many New Englanders were receptive to the group’s message: Workers in Maine, New Hampshire, and Vermont resented the influx of French Canadians, who were not only Catholic but also willing to accept lower wages than native-born workers.

There was the domestic hygiene movement, which put a high priority on cleanliness and an organized household. Then, Yankees who felt threatened by the post-World War influx of immigrants sought rural outposts with fewer foreigners. Vermont was an ideal such place – sparsely populated and pristine.

KKK in Vermont, 1924

A Shameful Chapter: Eugenics and Sterilization

The Vermont Commission on Country Life, created in 1928, asserted that “Yankee Protestant tradition and heritage” should be a model for figure community development. The goal was to “protect” the “old Vermont stored’ and prevent intermarriage with natives or French Canadians.

University of Vermont Professor Harry Perkins

University of Vermont Professor Harry Perkins led a eugenics survey from 1925-1936. The survey identified “bad heredity” in Vermonters, typically focusing on the poor, the mentally and physically disabled and those with American Indian heritage. These people became subject to forced sterilizations, imprisonment and public ridicule.

According to UVM records, over 250 documented sterilizations occurred in Vermont in total. Sterilizations began in the late 1920s; the last documented one in Vermont was performed in 1957.

However, sterilizations continued around the country, particularly targeting American Indians. Another 3,400 Abenaki women were sterilized between 1973 and 1976 in the United States, many of which involved termination of an unborn fetus. No documentation of informed consent was found for these procedures.

Reparations and Recognition

There have been some relatively recent efforts at recognition and reparations made by the state of Vermont.

In 2008, the Elnu Tribe, Koasek Tribe, Missisquoi Tribe and Nulhegan Tribe of Abenaki formed the Vermont Indigenous Alliance with the purpose of unifying the tribes and pursuing official recognition from the state.

In 2011, the Elnu Abenaki Tribe and the Nulhegan Abenaki Tribe received official recognition from Vermont, followed by the Abenaki Nation at Missisquoi, and the Koasek Band of the Koas Abenaki Nation in 2012.

While largely symbolic, state recognition ended years of ridicule for tribe members who were told they weren’t “real Indians,” according to Chief Don Stevens of the Nulhegan tribe. State recognition also gave tribe members the ability to sell crafts as “native made,” which previously could have resulted in federal fines.

In December 2012, with assistance from the Vermont Sierra Club and the Vermont Land Trust along with other organizations, Vermont’s Nulhegan Abenaki Tribe created a tribal forest in the town of Barton. The established forest land, 65 acres, contains a hunting camp and maple sugaring facilities that are administered cooperatively by the Nulhegan.

The St Francis Missisquoi Tribe also owns forest land in the town of Brunswick, centered around Brunswick Springs. These springs are believed to be a sacred traditional religious site of the Abenaki.

Together these Vermont forests are the only Abenaki held lands outside of the existing reservations in Quebec and Maine.

Last year in June, the University of Vermont issued a formal apology for the “stereotyping, persecution and in some cases state-sponsored sterilization” that was sanctioned by law and supported by the Eugenics Survey of Vermont.

“There has been an acknowledgement from the Legislature that Vermont needs to do more for the Abenaki community in light of the history of colonization and eugenics that has occurred in this land,” said Rep. Brian Cina, P-Burlington, who sponsored the Indigenous Peoples Day legislation that passed last year.

A bill to add Abenaki place names on state park signs, which received nearly unanimous support in both the Senate and the House, was also signed by the Governor this month.

Chief Roger Longtoe of the Elnu tribe said the bill is an important reminder of the continued presence of Abenaki in the state. “People think of native people like we were here in the past,” he said. But, “we haven’t disappeared.”

And this year in July, Gov. Phil Scott in July signed H.716, a bill allowing “certified citizens” of Vermont’s indigenous tribes to receive a free permanent fishing license or a free combination hunting and fishing license. Tribal citizens need only submit a current and valid tribal identification card to receive a license.

“It’s a milestone, basically, in Vermont’s history that they have now acknowledged and recognized the fact that Abenaki has always retained their rights to hunt and fish in our territories,” said Stevens.

But other bills, including one proposing an apology from the state for its involvement in the eugenics movement, have been set aside for this session. According to lawmakers and tribal leaders, COVID-19 is one reason those bills were shelved for now.

COVID Pandemic and Funding Barriers

Four Abenaki tribes in Vermont are recognized by the state government: Elnu, Missisquoi, Koasek and Nulhegan. But other tribes’ petitions for state recognition have been denied, and no Vermont tribe has federal recognition. And when it comes to relief funding during the pandemic, federal recognition status matters.

Without federal recognition, Vermont tribes are not eligible for relief through the CARES Act, which provides a minimum aid payment to tribes of $100,000. Relief efforts within Vermont have been directed toward minority populations in general, but have not included aid specifically allocated to tribes.

As the coronavirus pandemic has raged across the country, it has had a disproportionate impact on Native American tribes, as well as people of color in general. Black Vermonters, out of all demographics, have the highest infection rate – according to the Vermont Department of Health, 10 times higher than white Vermonters.

Because the reported cases of those self-identifying as Native American remain low in Vermont, it’s hard to know how many of them have been impacted by the pandemic, and in what ways. The state’s health department reports only two cases of COVID-19 among those who identify as Native American or Alaskan Native in the state. But given the reluctance to self-identify, that number is likely inaccurate.

Tribal leaders, however, say the virus has still significantly impacted their community, citing elders and artists as being at particular risk. Artists in the Abenaki community have been particularly impacted by closures, as they largely depend on in-person events to generate revenue.

Now, tribes are organizing grassroots support for those in their communities who are most impacted by the pandemic, and collecting their own information on how the coronavirus is affecting their members.

“There’s still a lot of people not identifying,” Stevens told VTDigger last month, citing fear of discrimination as one main reason.

According to the Nulhegan chief, people are hesitant to identify themselves as Native American even for opportunities such as scholarships, like one that he helped organize through Champlain College recently. Said Stevens, “Nobody took advantage of it because they didn’t want to identify as being Abenaki.”

Stevens sees this type of discrimination as a broader issue across the state, citing the case of Tabitha Moore, who has been outspoken about racism in Vermont. “The more she’s doing, the more she’s being attacked,” he said.

Looking To The Future

Robin Wall Kimmerer, a citizen of the Potawatomi nation, and a distinguished botanist, focuses on the space between indigenous knowledge and scientific thought in her 2013 book.

In a recent ShiftMeals talk on land sovereignty and reparations around women in Vermont’s food system, Brook took inspiration from Robin Wall Kimmerer’s Braiding SweetGrass. She said, “We can all become indigenous to a place. And we are happy to share this with other people because that is our view of ownership. Because we don’t actually own anything. We are caretakers and we have a responsibility to this place. Just like this place has a responsibility to us. It’s a mutual relationship.”

“Land is identity,” Brook said. “And I would like the state of Vermont to remember that.”

Brook highlighted ways that the state can repair and build its relationship with inidigenous peoples, including consulting them on land management and development, not damaging sacred sites, and ensuring that projects don’t exacerbate climate change. “In terms of how they can make up for some of what’s happened in the past, this is our homeland and always will be… We always have to have a say in what is happening here,” she said.

Tribal leaders have also stressed to their communities the importance of completing the 2020 Census.

While the Missisquoi band is interested in pursuing federal recognition, others are content with the opportunities provided by state recognition. Stevens said he wasn’t interested now, but that he wasn’t closing the door on it for the future. Many Abenaki would like to focus locally first. For Stevens, that means more involvement in state government and better funding for American Indian-related programs and education initiatives.

Other future initiatives include creating a native scholarship program and a religious freedom bill that state legislation would ensure access to sacred sites, land protection, and exempting sites from taxation. That type of legislation already exists at the federal level as the 1978 Native American Religious Freedom Act, but it protects only federally recognized tribes.

In the state, Rep. Cina points to some positive change. “I’m seeing a lot more unity over the years, a lot more solidarity, and hoping that that leads to more gains for the Abenaki community in Vermont,” he said.

Tribal leaders have also stressed to their communities the importance of completing the 2020 Census, which is especially important for under-served and under-counted Native American populations.

“I think the Abenaki are overlooked in Vermont when we talk about minorities,” Stevens said. “We want to have more of a voice, but it’s tough to make a stand when you have so few people.”

Want to learn more? Join an Indigenous Peoples’ Day Teach-In on October 12, from 5:30-6:15 PM at Battery Park in Burlington: Nationally recognized Abenaki activist, teacher, and historian, Judy Dow will educate about the past, present, and future of the indigenous people of Vermont.

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