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State Recognition Process

Background

In 2007, the Bureau of Indian Affairs rejected the “St. Francis/Sokoki Band of Abenakis” (later called Missisquoi) petition for Federal Recognition.

They concluded that “8 of the petitioner’s 1,171
full members, less than 1 percent, demonstrated descent from a Missisquoi Abenaki Indian
ancestor.”

In 2002, the Vermont Attorney General had come to the same conclusion.

The lack of proof of Abenaki heritage pervades the petitioner’s submission.


Exclusion of Legitimate Abenaki

This required removing Jeanne Brink and Timothy de la Bruere, the two commissioners of undeniable Abenaki ancestry, from the Vermont Commission on Native American Affairs.

The following are quotes from a letter by the leadership of the “tribes” to then Governor Jim Douglas in an attempt to discredit anyone who questioned the ancestry of the groups applying for state recognition.


Flawed Process

Then Senator Vince Illuzzi pushed to removed geneology as a requirement so that there could be Indigenous presence at the Vermont’s Quadricentennial.

The Senator said a common thread of concern was the genealogy element, and suggested that the Commission consider eliminating this criterion.

Minutes for the Vermont Commission on Native American Affairs (VCNAA) for March 27, 2008
Read more

Read the full minutes here.

The Senator suggested short term grants of recognition to the three tribes in question for the sake of the Quadricentennial after which time the individual/tribe would have to submit their formal application for review and further recognition” (p.4). 

“The Senator requested that the Commission reconsider the criteria for recognition and give suggestions on time lines; making the criteria less “onerous” for those who are anxious to go through the process” (p.4). 

“Jeanne asked if the Senator had particular criteria in mind. The Senator said a common thread of concern was the genealogy element, and suggested that the Commission consider eliminating this criterion” (p.4). 

In the January 22, 2009 VCNAA meeting,

Don Stevens (Nulhegan “Chief”) also acknowledged the applicant tribes preference to not be required to show genealogy.

At minute 17:51 he says:

I mean there were some sticking ones, I think the tribes, they were against genealogy, and other certain points, I think, and that’s why it got changed in the committee meetings.

Don Stevens

In an email in the state archives from March 3, 2010,

Fred Wiseman (Missisquoi) also argued to remove genealogy from the state recognition process.

Genealogy must be only part of a package, not something that will kill a petition if not provided for all citizens…

All tribal roll and genealogical data must be used only by the scholars panel and considered proprietary so that the Attorney General will not be able to analyze it.

Fred Wiseman

The final wording for the Criteria for State Recognized Native American Indian Tribes states:

A substantial number of the applicant’s members are related to each other by kinship and trace their ancestry to a kinship group through genealogy or other methods. Genealogical documents shall be limited to those that show a descendancy from identified Vermont or regional native people.

State of Vermont

The state of Vermont abdicated its responsibility to vet potential Indigenous nations for state recognition and allowed groups to determine their own eligibility.

In 2023, Representative Tom Stevens summed up the process (minute 22:38) for the House Committee on General, Housing, and Military Affairs.

Each of the bands that have been recognized had to go through a process that they primarily ran, and ran through the department of ACCD (Agency of Commerce and Community Development) where the archeologists and legislators did not have a piece of the decision-making process.

Representative Tom Stevens
Read the full quote

Traditionally according to BIA  (Bureau of Indian Affairs) there’s three ways of determining who belongs to a tribe or a band of Native American or Indigenous people. One is blood quantum which is essentially the one drop rule. “How much of an Indian are you?” is a phrase that is incredibly derisive and oppressive. The second is lineage which is another form of blood quantum. Can you prove through your ancestry, through “legitimate ancestry” that you have a connection to someone in the past who has Indigenous blood in them. Again that’s a form of blood quantum… 
So when we created the the recognition, the third avenue was social. Essentially saying that if you say that you are a member of that band or tribe, and that tribe accepts you into their folds (sic), then you are a member of that tribe or band. And that’s up to each of the tribes. We kept ourselves at arms length from determining to say, “Rich is an Indian or not.” From a governmental perspective, that is a terrible place to be, it’s an awkward place to be. And it was an early form of reparations, which is trying to say, this is not how we want to determine who an Indian is. And I use this term because it is used by Indigenous Vermonters in this case. That’s what we settled on. And then each of the bands that have been recognized had to go through a process that they primarily ran, and ran through the department of ACCD (Agency of Commerce and Community Development) where the archeologists and legislators did not have a piece of the decision-making process, except they had to vote on it. And we voted on two bands one year, and two bands the next year. And it wasn’t without controversy that we approved these four bands. But they’ve been there, the point that we used as an in to this recognition was culture.

After reconstructing the genealogical history of each family back eight to twelve generations to their arrival in either New England, New York, or New France, I can attest that only two have any Abenaki ancestry.

Darryl Leroux

In 2023, professor Darryl Leroux published “State Recognition and the Dangers of Race Shifting.”

He writes, “due to the problematic nature of the state-recognition criteria, none of the four tribes produced any completed genealogies for their members, nor did they submit any primary documents to support their stories about genealogical connections… If the review process required any genealogical evidence, it would have surely demonstrated that virtually all members of the four “tribes” are white Franco Americans.

“Of the seven different reviewers who evaluated the four applications for recognition, six had a long, demonstrable history of employment with at least one of the “tribes,” as presented in their own biographies to the [Vermont Commission on Native Affairs].

“Ensuring that out-of-state Abenaki people were barred from testifying at legislative hearings that involved individuals falsely claiming to be Abenaki sealed the deal.”

Read the full paper here.

Odanak Protests

A Seven Days article titled Abenaki Angst (2011) explains that

Senator Vince Illuzzi barred members of Abenaki First Nation from testifying.

Why are lawmakers like Sen. Illuzzi afraid to hear what we have to say? Why are they scared to look us in the eye?

Denise Watso of the Abenaki First Nation
Read an excerpt from the article

A group of Abenaki that opposes the recognition of several Vermont-based tribes won’t be allowed to testify before a key Senate committee.

The Abenaki First Nation initially got the OK to testify before the Senate Economic Development, Housing and General Affairs Committee, but that offer was partially rescinded by Sen. Vince Illuzzi (R-Essex/Orleans), the committee’s chair and a proponent of Abenaki recognition.

Illuzzi said the group’s in-state members can testify, but the out-of-state members can only provide written testimony. “We only meet for three hours a day and only have so much time to take direct testimony,” he said. “We’ve done the same for other out-of-state witnesses on bills.”

That’s not good enough for Denise Watso of the Abenaki First Nation, which has tribal members in Vermont, New York and Québec. Watso questions the authenticity of at least two tribes seeking state recognition.“Why are lawmakers like Sen. Illuzzi afraid to hear what we have to say? Why are they scared to look us in the eye?” she asked. “These are not rhetorical questions. They are willing to take the time to hear testimony, they just refuse to hear from us. It’s just a lot easier to ignore emails and letters than it is to hear real-life Abenaki people speaking out for truth and justice in the halls of the Statehouse.”