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Birth of a Nation?


Published August 27, 2003 at 4:20 p.m.

The Abenaki Tribal Museum, the "official" historical record of the Abenaki people, resides in the waiting room of an old bus station in Swanton. Actually, there are two repositories for the tribal history of Vermont's first residents. April Rushlow, chief of the Abenaki Nation at Missisquoi, is kind enough to also walk her visitor through the more "political" one.

As Rushlow unlocks the door of the converted bus garage out back that houses the "unofficial" history, you can catch a whiff of the musty air inside. "Some of the stuff is coming off the walls because of all the dampness in here," she says, searching for the light switch. Several years ago the state of Vermont gave the Abenakis $25,000 to set up a tribal museum. Today, the exhibition operates on a shoestring budget and, from the look of things, doesn't get many visitors. Despite its proximity to Interstate 89 and a busy U.S.-Canadian border crossing, the museum is not a big tourist destination. Unlike the nearby Missisquoi National Wildlife Refuge, no highway signs point the way.

Fluorescent lights slowly flicker to life, illuminating a hand-lettered sign that reads, "Beware: You are entering into a period of Abenaki history that the State of Vermont says does not exist." Beyond the sign is a motley assortment of artifacts. There's an old map of Ndakinna, the Abenaki homeland that spans all of Vermont and New Hampshire as well as parts of Massachusetts, Maine and southern Quebec. There's a fringed dress that belonged to an Abenaki woman of the 1920s who wore it to "look more Indian" when she sold baskets to tourists. There are also the street barricades tribal members used in 2000 to protest the desecration of Abenaki gravesites discovered on Monument Road in Highgate.

Then Rushlow comes to a display of medical instruments from the era of the Eugenics Survey. In 1931, at the urging of University of Vermont Zoology Professor Henry Perkins, the Legislature passed a law allowing the sexual sterilization of "feebleminded and insane" persons belonging to Vermont's "social problem group." Many of those targeted for sterilization, historians now know, were Native Americans. Some of their relatives still live in Franklin County.

All Vermont schoolchildren learn about Abenaki Indians. But the history told in the Swanton museum is not a part of the curriculum. Officially, the Abenaki Nation only exists as a historical and cultural relic, like an arrowhead or a shard of pottery unearthed after centuries underground. To the Abenakis and many local historians, anthropologists and educators, the state's refusal to acknowledge the uninterrupted presence of its own indigenous population is hypocritical. As archeologist and tribal museum director Fred Wiseman puts it, Vermont embraces the Abenakis when they "bring tourist dollars and a whiff of powwow diversity to the whitest state in the Union." But when it comes to acknowledging the tribe as a political entity, the state's official position is that the Abenakis disappeared from Vermont two centuries ago.

The Abenaki struggle for tribal recognition is not a new fight -- it's flared up in various forms over the years since the 1970s. The tribe submitted a petition for federal "acknowledgment" with the Bureau of Indian Affairs in April 1980. It has been waiting for an answer ever since. The BIA, severely short-staffed and forever mired in litigation, is notoriously slow in reviewing these cases. There are 12 tribes on the list ahead of the Abenakis, and at a rate of about three petitions a year, the BIA won't likely begin reviewing their case for at least four more years.

Nevertheless, the debate has heated up again. Fanning the flames was the December 2002 release of a 200-page document prepared by the Vermont attorney general's office entitled "State of Vermont's Response to the Petition for Federal Acknowledgment of the St. Francis/Sokoki Band of the Abenaki Nation of Vermont." This report, ostensibly a legal opinion, was released without fanfare in the final days of Governor Howard Dean's administration. It weighs in on whether the Abenaki Nation meets the seven legal criteria for federal recognition as a Native American tribe. In the AG's opinion, it does not.

But many people want to know why this report was prepared at all; the BIA never asked for it. Experts on the Abenakis who have read it say it's biased, inaccurate and lacking in scholarship. They want to know why it was researched and compiled largely in secret. How much did it cost? Why didn't the attorney general's office seek input from Vermont's many experts on Abenaki history? In short, critics contend this report is nothing more than a preemptive attack on the tribe's request for official recognition and portrays contemporary Abenakis as genetic, cultural and political frauds.

The basis for this attack, these same critics argue, stems from fears voiced repeatedly by Dean and his administration. If Vermont recognizes the Abenaki tribe, it will be seen as a de facto endorsement of their petition for federal acknowledgment. And federal acknowledgment opens the door for Indian casinos in Vermont -- something Dean vehemently opposed. It also paves the way for tribal land claims that, Dean once warned, would prevent all Vermonters from buying or selling their homes for the foreseeable future.

Many Abenakis see the AG's report as the latest in a long and painful history of attacks on their cultural and historical identity. At last month's intertribal powwow at the Shelburne Museum, an Abenaki man got angry when asked about his tribe's struggle for recognition. "I'm sorry, I can't talk to you about it. I just can't," he said. "I love Vermont and I've lived here all my life. But it's still one of the most racist states in the country."

For the better part of the 20th century, many Abenakis hid their heritage for fear of being harassed or ridiculed. Fred Wiseman didn't have to. He never even knew he was Abenaki. "As a child, I remember my grandmother talking about our relatives to the north as 'that tribe,'" Wiseman recalls. "I don't think my dad ever knew. She never told anyone of our ancestry."

But when Wiseman's father died in 1985 and a number of his Abenaki relatives came to the funeral, Wiseman learned the truth about his background. "It was really weird because as a kid I was fascinated by Indians. I was in Boy Scouts and did Indian lore and eventually became an archeologist," he says. "It must have been somewhere in my genes trying to bubble out." Now a professor at Johnson State College, Wiseman teaches classes on Native American history and culture and has written a book on the Abenakis called Voice of the Dawn.

Sitting in the Victorian house Wiseman's grandfather built in Swanton, it's easy to see why some people might doubt his Indian roots. Like other Abenakis whose ancestors married Europeans, Wiseman bears little resemblance to the stereotypes of Indians that pervade popular culture. He has fair, thinning hair, blue eyes and light skin, and he is married to a Caucasian woman.

But Wiseman is a member of the Abenaki Tribal Council and one of its most vocal proponents of state and federal recognition. He says there are many reasons why Vermont should acknowledge the Abenaki Nation, and it's as simple as the Legislature adopting a non-binding resolution. "State recognition doesn't give us any land, any casinos, nothing," Wiseman points out. "What it does do is provide a springboard for grant-writing. And it gives the Abenakis the status of a minority. Without state or federal recognition, Indians are not a minority and don't fall under any civil rights laws."

State recognition would allow the Abenakis to sell their crafts as "Indian-made." Under the Indian Arts and Crafts Act of 1990, only members of state- or federally-recognized tribes can do so. Currently, Vermont Abenaki craftspeople face hefty fines for violating that law, as do galleries and museums that sell their goods. State recognition would also allow Abenaki children to apply for federal and private scholarships designed to help Native Americans attend college.

Wiseman emphasizes that state recognition is not automatically a preamble for federal recognition, which involves a far more complex process. However, BIA acknowledgment would bring additional benefits to both the Abenakis and Vermont, Wiseman says. It would make money available for public schools that serve Abenaki children and perhaps fund a local tribal college. Cultural grants could be used to help preserve the native language which, according to Abenaki storyteller Joe Bruchac, is spoken by only a few hundred people and is one of the most endangered languages in North America.

Federal recognition could also make funds available for a tribal health clinic in the Swanton area, relieving some of the pressure on the Northwestern Medical Center in St. Albans. As Wiseman and others point out, the Abenakis are among the poorest people in Vermont. He claims they have the lowest life expectancy and highest rates of infant mortality, heart disease, diabetes and cancer.

But those health trends are not easily confirmed. Ironically, the Abenakis' status as an unrecognized tribe makes it difficult to conduct research on them or target them for outreach programs. Although the Vermont Department of Health has done surveys of the Abenakis, it keeps those statistics confidential at the request of the tribe. In 1989, confidential tribal records held by the BIA were released to the state during a legal battle over native fishing rights. That incident only made the Abenakis more secretive about their tribal membership and increased their distrust of outsiders.

So why hasn't the Legislature adopted a resolution to accord the Abenaki Nation official tribal status? Staunch conservative senator Julius Canns (R-Concord) has proposed it every year for the last decade, only to have the resolution returned to him as a legally binding bill. The bill is then referred to committee, where it dies. This year, Canns got all 30 senators to sign onto the effort, and it still failed. The reason, Wiseman and others contend, is legislative arm-twisting by the attorney general's office.

"They're trying to disprove that the Abenakis are Indians," Wiseman says. "It's an old tradition. You try to destroy the credibility, the internal structure and the existence of an ethnic group that's perceived as an enemy of the state. It's called ethnocide."

Whenever the state of Vermont has to answer questions about its relationship with the Abenaki tribe, the spotlight invariably falls on Chief Assistant Attorney General Bill Griffin. He's an amiable, soft-spoken man who, like most lawyers in political positions, chooses his words carefully and deliberately. So it was surprising when he refused to allow our 50-minute interview to be recorded.

Griffin dismisses the suggestion that the attorney general's office was strongly opposed to the Abenakis' petition from the start. "I don't accept that," he says. "We went into this with the view of participating in the process. What we did was review what material had been filed by the petitioners."

Griffin also denies that his office was trying to forestall the economic and political consequences of recognizing the tribe. But he does point out that those consequences would be considerable -- and he has prepared a two-page outline to explain them. They include the delay or cancellation of real estate transactions due to tribal land claims; the loss of school funding resulting from tribal land removed from the tax base; the inability of Vermont to collect taxes on tobacco, gasoline and personal property; and the loss of the state's ability to regulate hunting and fishing. Recognition could also result in changes to Vermont's criminal and motor vehicle laws and, possibly, the introduction of casino gambling.

"It's basically like creating another state or nation within the state of Vermont," says Griffin. "And this would create a special class of Vermonters."

But if the BIA's consideration of the tribe's petition is still years away, why did Griffin ask for this report now? He says it "evolved" over a period of at least two years. With more and more state lawmakers inquiring about the merits of Vermont recognizing the tribe, his office decided to find out whether the Abenaki petition satisfies the seven legal criteria spelled out by Congress and the BIA. A key determinant is whether the Abenakis are recognized by outsiders as a "distinct community." To make that ruling, Griffin says, they devoted "one lawyer for one year" to the task. "I'm guessing the whole thing cost less than $100,000," he adds.

The author of the report is Eve Jacobs-Carnahan, a special assistant attorney general with no specific history of working on Native American issues, according to Griffin. (Jacobs-Carnahan was out of town and unavailable to comment on this story.) She was assisted by two paid, out-of-state consultants: John Alexander Dickinson, a history professor from the University of Montreal and an expert on New France; and J. Kay Davis, a Minnesota Chippewa Indian and former staff historian at the BIA's Branch of Acknowledgment and Research between 1993 and 1996. State financial records dating back to January 1, 2001 show the two were paid a total of about $6000 for their work.

Using "extensive independent research into the historical and genealogical claims made in the petition," the researchers concluded that the St. Francis/Sokoki Band of the Abenaki Nation has not been identified as a tribe by outsiders -- such as historians and anthropologists -- on a continuous basis from historical times until the present. Nor has it been a "distinct community" from historical times until the present. It has not maintained "political influence or authority" over its members. And, the researchers concluded, it has not proved that its members descend from a historical Indian tribe.

The 200-page document is posted on the attorney general's Web site,, and reads more like an academic paper than a legal opinion. But unlike, say, a doctoral thesis, it contains no footnotes or list of references beyond the names of libraries and collections consulted by the state. None of the 159 "exhibits" referenced in the report and filed with the BIA are posted online.

In Griffin's opinion, the Abenaki petition didn't make much of a case. "It was pretty thin," he says. "That was our assessment." Griffin argues that once the state's researchers disprove the first criterion -- that the Abenakis have not been recognized as a tribe by outsiders -- their petition falls apart. "From about 1800 to 1974 there were no anthropologists or researchers who identified an Abenaki tribe in Vermont," Griffin says. "One amazing thing we found in our research was that in many of those years, there were very few Native Americans in Vermont at all."

Some historians have argued that many Abenakis didn't identify themselves as Indians to census takers and other outsiders because they feared harassment or persecution of the kind perpetrated during the eugenics movement. They point out, for example, that American Indians didn't even get the right to vote until 1924. But Griffin contends that if the eugenics survey forced the Abenakis underground, that only weakens the tribe's case.

"If that's true, then their petition fails because requirement number one is that they have to have been identified as an American Indian entity on a continuous basis by outsiders," Griffin says. "If I were their lawyer, I don't think that's an argument I would make because I wouldn't even make it to first base."

Griffin denies the suggestion that this document was prepared in secret and says he informed the Governor's Advisory Commission on Native American Affairs. "They were aware," he says. "I think I indicated to [Commission Chairman] Jeff Benay that we were working on it."

Griffin doesn't deny that the eugenics survey took place in Vermont. But were the Abenakis targeted for sterilization? "I don't know about that," he says. "The idea that this eugenics survey zeroed in on Abenaki Indians has no basis in the record."

This attitude of denial is reflected in the AG's opinion paper. "Our report has been out there for six or eight months and we haven't heard a whisper from anyone who has disagreed with our reading of these eugenics records," Griffin adds. "Nothing, absolutely nothing."

What do local experts on Vermont's Abenakis have to say about the attorney general's report?

"It's a real hatchet job," says Bill Haviland, former chair of the UVM anthropology department and author of one of the most widely used anthropology textbooks in the world. "They are selective in their use of references, they are unfamiliar with anthropological context, they make abundant use of innuendo. I'd say there are a whole lot of problems."

As a historical work, "It's highly biased and wildly out of date," Haviland adds. "They tend to rely on very old sources, people who either didn't understand or didn't want to understand the nature of Native American societies. It's just not good scholarship."

Haviland, who now lives in Maine, has a theory about why the attorney general hired out-of-state consultants to do research on Vermont's indigenous population: "The people in Vermont who know the Abenakis wouldn't do it."

Nancy Gallagher, a science historian and author of a book on Vermont's eugenics movement, Breeding Better Vermonters, was dumbfounded when she heard Griffin's remarks about the sterilization of Abenakis and was dismayed by the report's take on the eugenics record. "When I saw what they had done, I couldn't believe they used historical sources in that way," she says. "If I were a teacher grading a history report, I would give it an F."

James Petersen, chair of the UVM anthropology department, agrees. Last November -- only weeks before the final report was released -- he was contacted by Attorney General William Sorrell and Jacobs-Carnahan and asked to review a draft of the report and offer some feedback. So Petersen and a colleague, UVM biological anthropologist Deborah Blom, went to Montpelier to discuss it with them.

From Petersen's perspective, the meeting was not very productive. As Petersen told the two attorneys, he is not a genealogist but an anthropologist and archeologist who works with data sets and time trajectories that are different from those the state's researchers were using.

"After about 10 minutes of that, they quickly turned off any interest in what we had to say because, to be honest, they had a very specific agenda," Petersen recalls of the meeting with Sorrell and Jacobs-Carnahan. "The bottom line is, the BIA has its criteria for federal recognition. And they didn't give a rat's ass about whether or not there were reasons to account for the difficulty of meeting those criteria or not."

Petersen says the conversation quickly turned adversarial and he got uncomfortable giving them more information or the names of other people to contact. He suspected the AG's office was just looking to "dig up dirt" on the Abenakis, he says, and it "troubled [him] a great deal" that the state's researchers never spoke to other local experts on the Abenakis. Moreover, those local experts who are cited in the report "are all slandered to one degree or another, either explicitly or implicitly." Petersen believes the AG's office turned to out-of-state "hired guns" to do the work because they feared the local experts on Native American history would be too sympathetic to the Abenaki cause.

"I myself would be happy to face Sorrell and Jacobs-Carnahan in a court of law someday" about the historical veracity of their document, Petersen says. "I hope it comes to that, on one level, because they have some real problems with their case."

Petersen isn't the only one who feels the AG's office was looking to disparage the Abenakis. Jeff Benay, chair of the Governor's Advisory Commission on Native American Affairs, is also director of Indian education in Franklin County and has worked with the Abenakis for 25 years. Despite Griffin's claim that he notified members of that commission, Benay says he had "no idea" the attorney general was putting together an opinion paper on the Abenaki petition.

"The only thing I knew was that literally there were calls being made by people in the attorney general's office -- and I received one of them -- asking me, did I know anyone who had any dirt on the Abenakis," Benay says. "I was astounded that I would be getting calls such as that.

"I contacted Governor Dean's legal counsel at the time, David Rocchio, and said, 'This is really underhanded and I won't be privy to this,'" Benay adds. "And it stopped. But many people got those calls."

But Griffin vehemently denies that he or anyone working for him would have made those calls. "That wouldn't be anyone from the attorney general's office," he says. "I've known Eve [Jacobs-Carnahan] long enough and well enough to know that. No way."

Vermont's ambivalent attitude toward the Abenaki Nation is reflected in its contradictory actions over the years. In 1976, on Thanksgiving Day, then-Governor Thomas Salmon extended formal recognition to the tribe. That act was rescinded by his successor, Richard Snelling. In 1983, Snelling threw the Indians a bone by issuing a proclamation acknowledging the Abenaki Nation as the only tribal government in the state.

In 1991 then-Governor Madeleine Kunin created the Governor's Advisory Commission on Native American Affairs, which requires that three of its commissioners be appointed by "the Abenaki Tribal Council." Governor Jim Douglas recently reissued that executive order. But he has said he will wait and see what the BIA decides before recommending what Vermont should do. That's a politically safe stance, considering it'll be years before the Abenaki petition even comes up.

But this issue could have more immediate political ramifications. With Dean leading the field of Democratic presidential challengers, national journalists and campaign strategists are already poring over his record as governor. There's always the possibility that someone will use Dean's stance on the Abenakis to try to poke holes in his populist veneer. It would be ironic if the Democratic Party's most progressive candidate in decades were haunted by an issue that is usually the exclusive purview of the liberal establishment -- Native American rights. As one unnamed Abenaki tribal member complained, "The ACLU has had very little to say about this civil rights debate." Meanwhile, the legislators pushing hardest for Abenaki recognition are conservative Republicans.

Some Abenakis don't care whether their tribe is recognized by the state or U.S. government. Their opinion has nothing to do with how they feel about casinos, tribal land claims, Dean's presidential bid or whether their grandparents' birth certificates identified them as "Indian" or "white." As Abenakis are often heard to say, "We don't need the government to tell us who we are."

But there is something insidious about Vermont's unwillingness to come to grips with its own dark past. Chief Rushlow, daughter of the fiery and often controversial former Abenaki chief, Homer St. Francis, remembers the day back in the 1970s when her father walked into the Pavilion Office Building in Montpelier and found the skeletal remains of an Abenaki woman and child on display in a glass case. Her father told a state worker that he had so many minutes to remove them before he cremated them on the spot.

There have been plenty of other skeletons in Vermont's closets, including the 80 or so sets of Indian remains that for years gathered dust on shelves or were used as doorstops by professors at UVM. According to Rushlow, those bones were eventually returned to her tribe and reburied. Rushlow says her community won't heal until the issue of tribal status is laid to rest as well.

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