Abenaki of Vermont: Out of the Shadows

The Abenaki of Vermont are the latest Native people to emerge from the shadows

Their long-sought state recognition, made official amid great celebration May 3 in a bill-signing on the Statehouse steps, does not change their history or the fact that they have always known who they were. But it signals a dramatic ñ almost overnight ñ end of the official hostility that made their struggle for survival so harrowing.This is a time for celebration and honoring of the courageous tribal leaders and non-Native friends who made this day possible. Abenaki spokesmen united in thanking Jeff Benay, chairman of the Governorís Commission on Native American Affairs, for giving his time and effort selflessly over past years to help Native individuals and families at all hours with everything from matters of state policy to personal grieving.The best-known of the Abenaki governments is the St. Francis/Sokoki Band of the Missisquoi Abenaki Nation, based in far northern Swanton, the heart of the Abenaki homeland. Under the strong and militant leadership of the late Homer St. Francis, Abenaki began to reassert its presence in the state in the mid-20th century after a long history of suppression and intimidation. His widow, Patsy, and daughter, April, current chief of the band, received an eagle feather after the recognition ceremony in honor of 30 years of struggle.But other Abenaki bands are now coming into the limelight. The Traditional Cowasuck ñ Horicon Band of Newport is installing fresh young leadership on this day of recognition.The Nulhegan Band reorganized a year ago and is already playing an active role. The Odanak Band maintains ties with the more populous Abenaki reserves across the Canadian border. We welcome their new leaders and honor their previous generation, including Sachem Howard Knight of the Cowasuck, retiring for health reasons and choosing this auspicious time to turn over the reins.This is a moment for rejoicing, but we feel it is also a moment to reflect on the meaning of the state recognition bill and the dark history that it brings to an end.Through the 20th century, Vermont was almost unique in its adamant denial that American Indians still lived in the state. In the 1920s the state government sponsored a eugenics program that imposed sterilization on families the elite considered unworthy.A large number of Abenaki families felt they were a target and hid their identity. The memory of this horror was refreshed when state Attorney General William Sorrels dipped into the records of the Eugenics Survey to bolster his brief against federal recognition for the Abenaki. In a violation of academic ethics, he published family names along with uncomplimentary descriptions by the eugenics census-takers.This sorry history even entered into the 2004 presidential campaign.Former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean had declared against the St. Francis/Sokoki Band during his tenure. He vehemently opposed their bid for recognition, saying he feared it would lead to a casino. The St. Francis/Sokoki in turn released details of his hostility to the other Democratic candidates and ultimately endorsed former Gen. Wesley Clark. As chairman of the Democratic National Committee, Dean seems intent on overcoming this doubt on his record. He is giving strong and apparently sincere help to developing Native candidates for office and increasing their say in Democratic councils. We welcome his change of heart.Perhaps providentially, it was the BIAís precipitous rejection of the St. Francis/Sokoki petition for federal acknowledgement that opened the door for state recognition. The band always maintained it was not aiming for a casino. Once it became clear that such a project was not in the cards, the state Legislature had no further excuse to deny the Abenaki their rightful identity.As the Vermont case now makes clear, recognition is never simply a matter of ìgetting a casino.î Not only does it acknowledge a long struggle to maintain tribal identity and tradition, it gives access to benefits that will help ensure survival. Health programs for the elders, education for the youths are some obvious programs now available with official state status.Another less-noticed feature was especially important for the Abenaki. Without state recognition, Native artisans did not have the protection of the American Indian Arts and Crafts legislation. They could not market their crafts as Indian-made, even though they reflected centuries of tradition. They were sometimes afraid of bringing family designs to the market, where they had no protection against piracy by mass producers.Beyond these legal benefits, moreover, is the intangible but extremely important shift in atmosphere. Recognition is the barrier against the pressure for assimilation and against tribal self-expression that can only be called a soft, American-style genocide.It is an ominous and telling sign that some of the anti-Indian politicians in Connecticut have been talking about retracting state recognition from the long-established tribes who had won federal acknowledgement and then saw it snatched back.The slippery slope from this legal denial of group identity to the horrors of physical pressure and outright extermination is starkly clear in the early 20th century history of Vermont. The story of the Eugenics Survey should not be forgotten, even amidst the present celebration. (For a thorough and dispassionate account, see Nancy Gallagherís 1999 study, ìBreeding Better Vermonters.î) Along with some 32 other states, Vermont joined the Social Darwinist eugenics movement in the 1920s, passing a Eugenics Survey program in 1925 and following up in 1931 with a law for sterilization of ìfeeble-mindedî or unruly members of undesirable minorities.Mixed Indian/French Canadian families were a special target. By this time, Vermont was already suppressing the memory of its first inhabitants, referring to their ancestors as ìgypsies,î ìpiratesî or ìriver rats.îAnti-recognition politicians of the present hid behind this terminology to deny that the eugenics program singled out Indians, but the Abenaki know better.According to the Abenaki historian Frederick Wiseman, nearly every Abenaki family of the Missisquoi region has stories of a relative who suffered involuntary sterilization. Cross-burning by the Ku Klux Klan added to the fear, causing many Abenaki to ìpassî into other segments of society. But it is important to note that the Eugenics Survey was not a product of redneck ignorance. It was an offshoot of the progressive movement of the time, trying to improve society by scientifically guided state action. That reactionary bastion, the Roman Catholic Church, deserves honor for mounting the strongest resistance to this liberal horror, which was finally exposed for what it was by the rise of the Nazis in Germany.We apologize for recounting this ugly history at a time of Abenaki celebration, but it shows just how much this nation has had to overcome to reach this moment. Indeed, we would suggest as one of the first tasks for the Abenaki bands and their supports that they petition the state government for a formal apology for the Eugenics Survey, on the model of North Carolina. Such a project would show that state recognition is not just a political sop; it is bulwark against oppression for all Indian country.

The Abenaki of Vermont are the latest Native people to emerge from the shadows. Their long-sought state recognition, made official amid great celebration May 3 in a bill-signing on the Statehouse steps, does not change their history or the fact that they have always known who they were. But it signals a dramatic ñ almost overnight ñ end of the official hostility that made their struggle for survival so harrowing. This is a time for celebration and honoring of the courageous tribal leaders and non-Native friends who made this day possible. Abenaki spokesmen united in thanking Jeff Benay, chairman of the Governorís Commission on Native American Affairs, for giving his time and effort selflessly over past years to help Native individuals and families at all hours with everything from matters of state policy to personal grieving. The best-known of the Abenaki governments is the St. Francis/Sokoki Band of the Missisquoi Abenaki Nation, based in far northern Swanton, the heart of the Abenaki homeland. Under the strong and militant leadership of the late Homer St. Francis, Abenaki began to reassert its presence in the state in the mid-20th century after a long history of suppression and intimidation. His widow, Patsy, and daughter, April, current chief of the band, received an eagle feather after the recognition ceremony in honor of 30 years of struggle. But other Abenaki bands are now coming into the limelight. The Traditional Cowasuck ñ Horicon Band of Newport is installing fresh young leadership on this day of recognition. The Nulhegan Band reorganized a year ago and is already playing an active role. The Odanak Band maintains ties with the more populous Abenaki reserves across the Canadian border. We welcome their new leaders and honor their previous generation, including Sachem Howard Knight of the Cowasuck, retiring for health reasons and choosing this auspicious time to turn over the reins. This is a moment for rejoicing, but we feel it is also a moment to reflect on the meaning of the state recognition bill and the dark history that it brings to an end. Through the 20th century, Vermont was almost unique in its adamant denial that American Indians still lived in the state. In the 1920s the state government sponsored a eugenics program that imposed sterilization on families the elite considered unworthy.
A large number of Abenaki families felt they were a target and hid their identity. The memory of this horror was refreshed when state Attorney General William Sorrels dipped into the records of the Eugenics Survey to bolster his brief against federal recognition for the Abenaki. In a violation of academic ethics, he published family names along with uncomplimentary descriptions by the eugenics census-takers. This sorry history even entered into the 2004 presidential campaign. Former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean had declared against the St. Francis/Sokoki Band during his tenure. He vehemently opposed their bid for recognition, saying he feared it would lead to a casino. The St. Francis/Sokoki in turn released details of his hostility to the other Democratic candidates and ultimately endorsed former Gen. Wesley Clark. As chairman of the Democratic National Committee, Dean seems intent on overcoming this doubt on his record. He is giving strong and apparently sincere help to developing Native candidates for office and increasing their say in Democratic councils. We welcome his change of heart. Perhaps providentially, it was the BIAís precipitous rejection of the St. Francis/Sokoki petition for federal acknowledgement that opened the door for state recognition. The band always maintained it was not aiming for a casino. Once it became clear that such a project was not in the cards, the state Legislature had no further excuse to deny the Abenaki their rightful identity. As the Vermont case now makes clear, recognition is never simply a matter of ìgetting a casino.î Not only does it acknowledge a long struggle to maintain tribal identity and tradition, it gives access to benefits that will help ensure survival. Health programs for the elders, education for the youths are some obvious programs now available with official state status. Another less-noticed feature was especially important for the Abenaki. Without state recognition, Native artisans did not have the protection of the American Indian Arts and Crafts legislation. They could not market their crafts as Indian-made, even though they reflected centuries of tradition. They were sometimes afraid of bringing family designs to the market, where they had no protection against piracy by mass producers. Beyond these legal benefits, moreover, is the intangible but extremely important shift in atmosphere. Recognition is the barrier against the pressure for assimilation and against tribal self-expression that can only be called a soft, American-style genocide. It is an ominous and telling sign that some of the anti-Indian politicians in Connecticut have been talking about retracting state recognition from the long-established tribes who had won federal acknowledgement and then saw it snatched back. The slippery slope from this legal denial of group identity to the horrors of physical pressure and outright extermination is starkly clear in the early 20th century history of Vermont. The story of the Eugenics Survey should not be forgotten, even amidst the present celebration. (For a thorough and dispassionate account, see Nancy Gallagherís 1999 study, ìBreeding Better Vermonters.î) Along with some 32 other states, Vermont joined the Social Darwinist eugenics movement in the 1920s, passing a Eugenics Survey program in 1925 and following up in 1931 with a law for sterilization of ìfeeble-mindedî or unruly members of undesirable minorities. Mixed Indian/French Canadian families were a special target. By this time, Vermont was already suppressing the memory of its first inhabitants, referring to their ancestors as ìgypsies,î ìpiratesî or ìriver rats.î Anti-recognition politicians of the present hid behind this terminology to deny that the eugenics program singled out Indians, but the Abenaki know better. According to the Abenaki historian Frederick Wiseman, nearly every Abenaki family of the Missisquoi region has stories of a relative who suffered involuntary sterilization. Cross-burning by the Ku Klux Klan added to the fear, causing many Abenaki to ìpassî into other segments of society. But it is important to note that the Eugenics Survey was not a product of redneck ignorance. It was an offshoot of the progressive movement of the time, trying to improve society by scientifically guided state action. That reactionary bastion, the Roman Catholic Church, deserves honor for mounting the strongest resistance to this liberal horror, which was finally exposed for what it was by the rise of the Nazis in Germany. We apologize for recounting this ugly history at a time of Abenaki celebration, but it shows just how much this nation has had to overcome to reach this moment. Indeed, we would suggest as one of the first tasks for the Abenaki bands and their supports that they petition the state government for a formal apology for the Eugenics Survey, on the model of North Carolina. Such a project would show that state recognition is not just a political sop; it is bulwark against oppression for all Indian country.

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