Two Vermont Native American tribes have moved one step closer to receiving state recognition — an effort that has been decades in the making.
The Vermont Commission on Native American Affairs officially presented the legislature with two recognition petitions they had approved — one from the Nulhegan tribe in the Northeast Kingdom and one from the Elnu tribe in southern Vermont.
The tribes applied last fall, months after the VCNAA was formed and new rules established by the legislature last year were put in place. The rules set up a process by which Native American tribes, or bands, can apply to the commission for recognition. Their application is vetted by the commission and outside, independent scholars.
Tribes must meet eight separate criteria laid out in the law, ranging from genealogical and historical evidence that documents their existence through customs, traditions, familial ties and tribal organization, among other things.
Of the three that applied, the Elnu and Nulhegan have been approved by the VCNAA. A third remains under review and a fourth is applying this week.
Members of the two tribes, along with the VCNAA and lawmakers who helped craft last year's law, held a Statehouse press conference to announced the petition requests.
"After many years in the making, I believe this is the apex. I think 2011 is going to be the year," said Luke Willard, chairman of the VCNAA and a former chief of the Nulhegan tribe.
Willard said each application takes about three months to review, depending on the questions raised by scholars and commission members during the process.
Committees in the House and Senate will soon begin taking testimony from the tribes, VCNAA and the scholars. Rep. Helen Head (D-South Burlington), chairwoman of the House General, Housing and MIlitary Affairs Committee has set aside two hours per application next week for initial discussion.
Nulhegan Chief Don Stevens said the process had been bittersweet. The petitions represent a positive step forward after 17 years of lobbying the legislature for state recognition.
"Yet, we are the last people on the face of the Earth who have to prove who we are," said Stevens. Now, that their applications have been validated by three scholars and the commission, Stevens hopes the legislature will do the same.
Sen. Hinda Miller (D-Chittenden) said the process laid out in last year's legislation was designed to remove politics from the process. "Government works best when it's a facilitator," she said.
Rep. Kesha Ram (D-Burlington), who rankled some Abenaki during the last legislative session when she was perceived as being antagonistic to some tribes, also spoke at the press conference. She told Seven Days that she remains on the House committee that will review the applications. There had been an effort by some Abenaki to have Ram removed from the process.
"This process hopefully begins building new relationships, and puts on equal footing all Vermonters who claim Abenaki heritage," said Ram.
Sen. Vince Illuzzi (R-Essex/Orleans), who picked up the recognition mantel from former Sen. Julias Canns (R-Caledonia) after Canns' death, said the process won't undo the past, but he hoped that through the recognition process people can be informed about the history and cultures of Native Americans. "It's time to recognize those whose culture pre-dates that of our European ancestors," said Illuzzi.
Illuzzi said Vermont has mistreated Abenakis in the past, in particular during the extensive Eugenics project. "During that time, it caused them to deny their past and deny their culture," said Illuzzi.
With recognition, Illuzzi noted, comes the ability of tribes to sell arts and crafts as authentic Native American-made. Equally important, recognition allows tribes to access federal education funds.
Vermont's Abenaki were once recognized by the state when Gov. Thomas P. Salmon issued an executive order in 1976. However, that order was rescinded by Salmon's successor, Gov. Richard Snelling, who took office in 1977.