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Two Vermont Abenaki Tribes Earn State Recognition

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Gov. Peter Shumlin signed two bills today that grant official state recognition to two Native American tribes: The Nulhegan and the Elnu.

For decades, Vermont's Abenaki tribes have sought state recognition. It's been a bitter fight with lawmakers and various administrations, as well as internally between tribes and family bands within the Abenaki as well as Abenaki who have contested the legitimacy of the recognized tribes.

With state recognition, these two tribes — estimated to have a few hundred members combined — will be able to sell their crafts as Native American-made, or Abenaki-made, if granted approval by a federal crafts board. In addition, the tribes will also be able to apply for federal housing and education grants, though winning approval of those funds isn't guaranteed.

For the Abenaki in the room, however, the official recognition was more about ending decades of hiding their identity and charting a new path for their children.

The bitterness was set aside at a Statehouse bill signing ceremony attended by more than 100 people, including tribal members, past and current members of the Vermont Commission on Native American Affairs (VCNAA), and a throng of children — several of whom stood around Shumlin as he signed the bills into law.

Shumlin told the children a story: That his daughters' great great grandfather was Native American and he was told not to talk about his heritage, nor were his family members. "He could not talk about who he was," Shumlin said. "That won't be the same for you."

Chief Donald Stevens of the Nulhegan tribe in the Northeast Kingdom and Chief Roger Longtoe Sheehan of the southern Vermont-based Elnu tribe presented Shumlin and the state with a replica of a ceremonial belt made of wampum and a peace pipe — along with some Native American tobacco in a pouch — as thanks to the state for recognizing these tribes.

"I hope to welcome more in the future," Shumlin told the packed ceremonial office. One other tribe, the Koaseck, has had hearings in the Vermont Senate on its recognition bill, but there isn't enough time this session to complete work on the legislation. They'll have their bill taken up next session. Another tribe is seeking approval from the VCNAA, which might not come for another few months. The VCNAA vets all petitions for recognition before submitting them to the legislature.

Luke Willard, who chairs the VCNAA, told the crowd that he and many other younger Abenaki had plenty of relatives to thank for the decades-long struggle that was being realized for some today.

"When I was a kid I remember hearing a word in Abenaki circles, but I didn't understand its meaning," said Willard. "It wasn't until I became older that I understood what that word — recognition — truly meant." Once he understood, however, he was glad to take up the cause.

He congratulated the Elnu and Nulhegan for being the first two tribes to "exit the labyrinth" and become recognized.

Chief Stevens said the recognition "clears away the clouds of oppression" that has plagued Abenaki for generations and caused plenty of in-fighting among the various tribes and family bands. "The healing process for us begins today. The struggles of the past have not gone unnoticed."

Several lawmakers spoke at the event, including Sen. Hinda Miller (D-Chittenden) who held a potluck dinner at her house with chiefs from some of the Abenaki tribes in an attempt to craft legislation that would allow for recognition. Also attending was Rep. Helen Head (D-South Burlington), whose House committee worked on the recognition process. Chief among her committee members to work on the deal was Rep. Kesha Ram (D-Burlington).

Sen. Vince Illuzzi (R/D-Essex-Orleans), who has championed Abenaki recognition in the past decade, said granting these two tribes recognition helps the state repair past misdeeds. "Eugenics is one of the dark clouds of this state's history and it forced many of your ancestors to deny their ancestry and go underground." Illuzzi's Senate committee worked on the Abenaki recognition bills.

Now, added Illuzzi, the state is taking a step to "recognize the culture that existed long before the Europeans came to settle a place we now call Vermont."

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