An Abenaki song closed the Jan. 21 meeting in Westminster West, with, in front, Elnu Tribe members Jim Taylor, left, Roger Longtoe Sheehan with drum, and Nulhegan Band Chief Don Stevens.
Robert F. Smith/The Commons
An Abenaki song closed the Jan. 21 meeting in Westminster West, with, in front, Elnu Tribe members Jim Taylor, left, Roger Longtoe Sheehan with drum, and Nulhegan Band Chief Don Stevens.

Vt. Abenaki talk about controversy over legitimacy

At a community discussion in Westminster West, members of state-recognized bands discuss the Canadian tribes’ assertions that Vermont bands are not ‘the true Abenaki’

Several members and allies of the Southern Vermont Elnu Abenaki held a packed informational meeting on Jan. 21 in response to controversies regarding their tribal integrity and to answer questions about this from the public.

The meeting, hosted at the Westminster West Congregational Church, was organized by the Living Earth Action Group (LEAG), a citizen's group based in Westminster West which focuses on promoting sustainability and spirituality.

The LEAG website said the meeting "is about the controversy created by the Canadian Abenaki in Québec (Odanak and Wôlinak groups) that have made waves by coming down to Vermont and declaring that only they (the Canadians) are the true Abenaki."

At the meeting, Vermont Abenaki representatives addressed the recent Canadian Abenaki concerns, which go back about 20 years, in the light of modern political and economic issues and longtime tribal relations with federal governments.

They also provided background on the 500 years of European contact and pre-contact history of the tribe and tribal culture.

Well over 60 people attended the meeting, despite freezing cold, single-digit temperatures. The meeting was recorded by both FACT-TV out of Bellows Falls and Brattleboro Community TV, and will be available on those stations.

Elnu tribe member Rich Holschuh, co-director of the Atowi Project and a contributor to the Abenaki Alliance, Elnu Tribal Chief Roger Longtoe Sheehan, Chief of the Nulhegan Band of the Coosuk Abenaki Don Stevens, tribal member Jim Taylor, and several other members and allies website, "The Indian Act is a part of a long history of assimilation policies that intended to terminate the cultural, social, economic, and political distinctiveness of Aboriginal peoples by absorbing them into mainstream Canadian life and values."

"The government decides what the rules are," Holschuh said, and the other leaders contended that the rules were "arbitrary," a construct that the powers-that-be want to protect.

"It's not in a state's interest to have federally recognized tribes," Holschuh added.

Denying First Nation people tribal recognition avoids a lot of problems for the established governments, they said. With federal tribal recognition comes the issue of returning stolen land, or financial reparations in lieu of that, among many other issues.

Recognition also brings into play the legal ramifications of hundreds, if not thousands, of treaties that both the U.S. and Canadian governments made with First Nation tribes, many of which were broken.

Federally recognized tribes can be self-governing, which creates issues with the state or province they are located in. That autonomy has allowed Native people to establish their own laws and regulations, including approving casinos on their lands, which for many tribes, including the Abenaki in Québec, has proven very lucrative.

The state recognition for the Vermont Abenaki bands, the tribal leaders said, has come with very limited benefits.

Tribe members receive no federal or state payments or salaries, and they are not a self-governing entity within the state. Benefits do include not having to pay for hunting and fishing licenses. New laws make tribal-owned properties tax free.

"We don't have the money and the backing that the Odanak have," said Sheehan. "If they want to crush us, they have the money to get the lawyers."

He also claimed that Canadian tribes are trying to turn Vermont citizens against the Vermont tribes.

Who decides who is native?

As far as the Odanak and Wôlinak claims that they are the sole arbiters of who are "real" Abenaki and who are not, Holschuh said that goes contrary to traditional Abenaki culture.

"This is a unilateral issue brought by one group of people," Holschuh said, referring to the Odanak and Wôlinak bands. "This is not black and white. It's not a binary. We're all related - that's where I start."

The tribal leaders took turns explaining Abenaki history in the region.

Tribe members once occupied an area that today includes Québec, parts of New York, Vermont, New Hampshire, parts of Maine, and parts of Massachusetts. They were connected and shared language with tribes all through New England and into the Canadian Maritimes as part of the Wabanaki Confederacy.

They noted that all those state and national borders and boundaries are a modern construct, unknown to the Abenaki of generations past, who lived mainly in family groups that hunted, farmed, and fished on ancestral lands in a region generally divided according to the rivers in a watershed.

With the coming of European traders, explorers, and eventually invaders - particularly the French and English - came the borders and the separation of traditional Abenaki lands into two often-warring countries and subdivided into several colonies and, eventually, provinces and states. With those changes, Native issues became political issues, they said.

The majority of Abenaki sided with the French. Many converted to Catholicism, and two major refuges were established by them in Québec. The Odanak reserve originated around 1700 at the mouth of the St. Francis River. The Wôlniak Reserve in central Québec became the other major Abenaki refuge.

A strong Jesuit presence in both reserves has aided the Quebec Abenaki in getting federal recognition due to a long written history of births, deaths, baptisms, and other records, the participants said.

Two different tribal narratives

The crux of the dispute lies where the Abenaki historical narrative diverges.

The Québec Abenaki say that by around 1800, tribal bands in New England had, for the most part, all moved to the Québec reserves, and the two tribes have a long written record that satisfies those claims under Federal law.

The Abenaki in the U.S., on the other hand, disagree with this narrative in one major way. They say that they are descended from several small family bands of Abenaki that remained south of the Canadian border in the heart of Abenaki lands in northern New England and kept their ancestry hidden for a variety of reasons.

With Abenaki bands living in ancestral lands throughout Québec and the Northeast for hundreds, if not thousands, of years, "is it possible that all Abenaki moved to just one place" by 1800? Holschuh asked.

His answer? "No."

And the Elnu are not the only band outside of Odanak and Wôlniak claiming Abenaki heritage.

In addition to the Elnu Abenaki Tribe, other state-recognized tribes are the Abenaki Nation of Missisquoi, the Nulhegan Band of the Coosuk Abenaki Nation, and the Ko'asek Traditional Band of the Koas Abenaki Nation, all in Vermont.

The fifth Vermont band that has been unsuccessful through the state recognition process is the Ko'asek Traditional Band of the Sovereign Abenaki Nation.

The program began with an Abenaki greeting song, followed by a reading of a portion of Andlea Brett's essay, in the Our Better Nature anthology, on her personal journey growing up as an Abenaki woman in Vermont, in a family where her father tried to hide his Native heritage.

Brett's story, while subjective and personal, is the basic narrative repeated over and over among Vermont and New Hampshire Abenaki band members - personal stories that lack the documentation necessary to establish federal tribal status.

But that is not a major concern for the New England bands, only one of which has even tried to apply for federal status. Abenaki bands traditionally were kin-based and autonomous, making decisions by group consensus, the participants said - no one central tribal council or chief spoke for all the bands.

The Abenaki lacked a central government or governing body, and the bands in Vermont say they don't believe that the Odanak and Wôlniak Tribes in Québec can claim that position today.

"A committee determines their membership," explained Holschuh, citing rules that require connection to documented members of the tribe. The Québec tribes can reject people for membership who do not meet their criteria.

The Vermont Abenaki say they have no issue with the Canadian tribes having and applying tribal membership criteria. "That's their autonomy," Holschuh said.

They do have an issue with the idea that the Odanak and Wôlniak therefore have the position and status to decide who can be a member of any other Abenaki tribe.

In particular, they question why the Odanak and Wôlniak feel they can speak for those tribes that did not relocate to the two Québec reserves and whose experience over the past 200 years has been quite different.

For their part, the Odanak and Wôlniak say they are highly suspicious of the claims of Native ancestry in bands outside of their two tribes.

They assert that the New England bands are self-identified Abenaki - non-Indigenous people appropriating Abenaki culture that they have learned only because it was preserved on the Canadian reserves by people with documented Native lineage.

Chief Roger Longtoe Sheehan told the group that this sort of intertribal conflict is common, saying it is happening with tribes in Oklahoma, New Jersey, and North and South Carolina.

While there are close to 1,000 Native tribes in the United States, only 574 are federally recognized, and very few of those are in the East. One speaker pointed out that there is hardly a better-known New England tribe than the Wampanoag of Massachusetts, famed for the story every schoolchild learns about how they greeted the Pilgrims and taught them to survive in the early 1600s.

Yet it wasn't until 400 years later, for reasons very similar to the experience of the New England Abenaki, that the tribe began to see some state recognition. Most of the current Wampanoag bands are still considered self-identifying.

Federally recognized tribes "are afraid of recognizing more tribes," Sheehan asserted. "It's a money issue. People have agendas, and a lot of agendas have to do with power and money."

Who gets and controls reparations, federal money, and casinos are among the main disputes between federally recognized tribes and members who are considered as self-identifying.

Among those who identify as Abenaki, the New England bands feel that the "who is a real Abenaki and who is not" debate is one sided and political.

"Politics is about power and control. We don't want this to be this way," said Holschuh.

"We just want to be left the hell alone," Sheehan concluded.

This News item by Robert F. Smith was written for The Commons.

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