Abenaki press for recognition by Vermont
BY DAVID GRAM The Associated Press
MONTPELIER — Advocates for Vermont's Abenaki Indians, including the tribe's chief, called on lawmakers Friday to pass a resolution offering them official recognition.
“We're the only race in the United States that has to prove who we are,” said Abenaki Chief April Rushlow.
Rushlow and others said the new push for recognition came after a school official in northwestern Vermont reported last month that Abenaki students had been taunted in a school yard by other children.
“Abenaki school children had been scornfully told that they were not Indians ... because the government said so,” said Frederick Wiseman, a professor of history and archaeology at Johnson State College.
He and others said that attitude was the result of the state's stance that the Abenakis do not constitute a formally recognizable Indian tribe, and they attributed that stance to racism.
The comments came a day after Gov. Howard Dean told reporters he was urging lawmakers to be very careful before endorsing a resolution saying the Abenakis should be granted limited state recognition.
Dean said even such a limited government endorsement could lead to much more powerful federal regulation for the state's estimated 1,700 Abenakis. He said that could lead to extensive legal battles over Abenaki land claims and possibly allow the Indians to build casinos in Vermont.
Participants at Friday's news conference scoffed at these concerns. “These lies are red herrings and easily disproven by anyone with a transient knowledge of federal Indian law or the Abenaki community,” said Wiseman.
Sen. Julius Canns, R-Caledonia and a key sponsor of the pro-Abenaki resolution, said it was now being bottled up in committees — at the governor's behest — despite support from all 30 Senators and 110 co-sponsors in the House.
The resolution first “recognizes the tribal status of the Abenaki people,” and then tries to respond to the concerns voiced by Dean by adding:
“That, while this recognition is not intended to confer any special rights upon the Abenaki people, such as claims to Vermont lands or privileges not extended to other minority groups, it is intended to ensure that the Abenaki people receive the same recognition and privileges extended by the state of Vermont to any other minority group.”
Dean's fear of unintended legal consequences for such recognition drew support in a letter sent to lawmakers Friday from William Griffin, chief assistant attorney general.
Griffin wrote that, “The real thrust of this ‘recognition' resolution would be to foster the creation of a distinct tribal nation within Vermont, a nation entitled to a government-to-government relationship with the state and federal governments.”
Abenakis then “would have special privileges not available to Vermonters generally or to any other minority group in Vermont,” Griffin said.
In an interview, he rejected charges that the concerns stemmed from racism. He said the attorney general's office has successfully pursued complaints of discrimination against Abenakis several times in recent years.
Those at Friday's news conference sought to shift the focus away from worries about the consequences of federal recognition, though Rushlow and others said the Abenakis want that recognition.
Wiseman said the limited recognition offered in the state resolution would improve the chances that Abenaki children would be found eligible for scholarships set aside for minorities.
For her part, Rushlow refused to offer any guarantee that if the Abenakis won federal recognition some time in the future, they would not seek to assert the sort of land claims Dean said he feared. “We would have to put that to a vote of our people,” she said.