It’s not all doom and gloom under the Golden Dome — at least not to some Vermont Abenaki. In the midst of rallies against budget cuts, health care hand wringing and high school-style antics in the Vermont legislature, the Senate last week granted state recognition to two Vermont-based Native American tribes within the Abenaki Nation.
The Elnu, from southern Vermont, and Nulhegan, from the Northeast Kingdom, are the first tribes in Vermont history to receive official recognition from the legislature. Gov. Peter Shumlin is expected to sign the bill in a public ceremony within the next two weeks.
“We proved who we are,” said Nulhegan chief Donald Stevens. “We don’t need to prove who we are anymore. Going forward, I hope this is a time for the nation to heal.”
Vermont’s Abenaki were granted recognition in 1976 when Gov. Tom Salmon issued an executive order. But that recognition was fleeting. In 1977, Salmon’s successor — Gov. Richard Snelling — rescinded the order.
The Abenaki’s identity effort was renewed in 1993 when then-senator Julius Canns, whose ancestors were white, African American and Cherokee, introduced a recognition bill — the first of many during his Senate career. It never passed.
At least one more tribe could be official next session: the Koasek. A fourth tribe, the Missisquoi, has petitioned the state, but its application is awaiting approval by the Vermont Commission on Native American Affairs (VCNAA).
Divisions run deep among Native Americans in Vermont and, in some cases, the recognition process has exacerbated them.
Abenaki First Nation — a rival group that has tribal members in Vermont, New York and Québec — has openly challenged the genealogy of the Vermont tribes and called into question the validity of the VCNAA process.
A three-scholar panel reviews each tribe’s recognition application before the VCNAA votes.
Two of those scholars — David Lacy, a forest archaeologist with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, and Dave Skinas, an archaeologist with the U.S. Natural Resources Conservation Service — were criticized for using federal letterhead to submit their personal opinions on the tribal petitions. Lacy weighed in positively on both the Elnu and Nulhegan applications; Skinas approved of the Nulhegan’s bid. Both resubmitted their reports on plain paper; Lacy cannot take part in future application reviews, but Skinas can be a scholar as long as he does so on his own time and it doesn't conflict with his official duties.
According to the VCNAA’s minutes, the U.S. Bureau of Indian Affairs played a role in the scholars’ troubles, though it’s unclear how BIA became involved. Bureau officials didn’t return calls to “Fair Game” by press time.
Denise Watso of Abenaki First Nation wouldn’t say if her group was considering legal action to prevent the two Vermont tribes from official recognition.
“We are keeping our options open,” Watso said.
Sen. Vince Illuzzi (R-Essex/Orleans) said opponents are unlikely to overturn the law in light of the VCNAA process and unanimous approval by both the House and Senate.
“What we hope is that it will generate a new sense of community for these tribes, which have essentially been denied their identity for generations,” said Illuzzi.
Rep. Kesha Ram (D-Burlington) said the House did its best to follow the procedures laid out in the law. She worked last session to establish the criteria.
That doesn’t mean it won’t be challenged, she noted. “In many states, these issues have often not been settled in the legislature but in the courts,” Ram said.
Is the newfound recognition likely to be embraced by all Native Americans in Vermont?
“Vermont has made a statement,” said Luke Willard, chairman of the VCNAA. “It’s momentous, it’s historic. The identities and the civil human rights of many Vermonters have been confirmed, and there’s a lot of people celebrating right now.”
Legislative leaders may have to return to Montpelier this fall if Congress makes drastic cuts to federal spending in the FY12 budget.
The federal budget year begins October 1, while the state budget begins July 1. That means Vermont’s FY12 budget will already be three months along when the fed budget year begins.
The House set aside $3.6 million in its proposed FY12 budget to prepare some of those federal cuts, which could decimate state community-action agencies that run food shelves and other assistance programs. Low-income heating help and food for low-income women and children are also on the chopping block.
House Speaker Shap Smith (D-Montpelier) tells “Fair Game” that Montpelier could respond to additional cuts in several ways: scream about them, ignore them or forget about seeking reelection.
No, seriously: FY12 budget changes could be made by either the five-member Emergency Board, the 10-member Joint Fiscal Committee or a full-on special legislative session in the fall.
The last option would occur only if the cuts were deep enough to require input from all 180 lawmakers. Or, Speaker Smith noted, if the state needed to raise revenue — an option he is not ruling out in the event the federal cuts are even larger than anticipated.
“The challenge that we face right now, quite frankly, is that we don’t quite know what’s coming at us,” said Smith. “To figure out how we’re going to solve a problem that we don’t know the size of and the scope of is pretty tricky.”
If the recent government almost-shutdown is any indication, federal lawmakers might not even have a budget by September 30. That could really add to the excitement of next year’s legislative session.
Administration Secretary Jeb Spaulding says he hopes to better understand the potential impact of federal cuts on Vermonters within the next week to 10 days. For now, he says, the legislature should stay the course.
“We need to pass a restrained budget this year as soon as we can and not raise any broad-based taxes,” said Spauding. But he said he agrees with Speaker Smith: “You can’t take any options off the table down the road.”
The Vagina Demagogues
Congress will vote this week on whether to ban all federal funding to Planned Parenthood. If it goes through, women who rely on Medicaid and Medicare as their primary insurance would be shit out of luck when it came to getting preventative medical care.
Federal law already prohibits the use of taxpayer money to fund abortions. Now, Congress has determined that subsidized Pap smears are undermining the country’s fiscal health. Who knew lady parts were more expensive to maintain than a war in [insert name of Middle Eastern country here].
Vermont’s Congressional delegation plans to vote against the measure, but President Barack Obama has not said whether he’d veto the bill.
If the bill passes, Planned Parenthood would likely shut down some, or all, of its 10 health clinics in Vermont. That would leave up to 21,000 women without health care services, according to Jill Krowinski, director of Vermont public policy for Planned Parenthood of Northern New England.
“We are the only source of primary care for some low-income women in Vermont,” said Krowinski. “These funds they want to cut are all about preventative care, which we know is cost effective.”
For every dollar spent on preventative care, said Krowinski, taxpayers save $4 down the road.
In 2010, Planned Parenthood conducted 8000 cervical-cancer tests and 27,000 tests for sexually transmitted diseases, performed 9500 breast exams, and provided 16,000 women with contraceptives. Only 5 percent of their patients sought abortion services.
“This Congress was elected on the platform of jobs and the economy and the deficit, but this attack on Planned Parenthood doesn’t really help the deficit or create jobs, and it’s all because of 5 percent of the services we provide,” said Krowinski. “It’s outrageous and infuriating.”
Survey Monkey Business
The faux outrage over a “survey” recently conducted by Rep. George Till (D-Jericho) illustrates why lawmakers should stick to what they know — whatever that happens to be.
Till, a Fletcher Allen doc who practices gynecology and obstetrics, asked his fellow docs important questions about health care reform: Did they like single payer? Would they leave the state if a single-payer system were enacted? Would they still be able to pay country-club dues? OK, I made up that last one.
Till posted his questions using the online king of polling: SurveyMonkey. Anyone with access to the link could take the survey, and they could take it more than once — something Till failed to note when he publicized the results.
A couple of Till’s legislative colleagues — Reps. Mike Fisher (D-Lincoln) and Willem Jewett (D-Ripton) — admitted to taking the survey. This upset Till, the GOP and other single-payer opponents who think House leaders were trying to doctor the results in their favor.
In the end, Till’s “survey” found that docs were almost evenly split on the merits of single payer and less than a third of docs — mostly specialists — would consider leaving the state if a single-payer model was enacted. How many times did those specialists take the survey? No one knows.
What amazes me is that Till was shocked to learn that people who can access a public, nonsecure online survey would, in fact, take the survey — even if they weren’t invited. Or, given the opportunity and a hot-button issue, that people would fill it out multiple times.
Guess they don’t teach the finer points of online polling — or politics — in med school.
Seven Days staff writer Andy Bromage is filling in for me next week while I’m on vacation. I’ll return with a new column on April 27.