Two bills regarding Abenaki communities make headway; others shelved by pandemic

  • Chief Don Stevens of the Nulhegan band of the Abenaki nation at home in Shelburne on Tuesday, Sept. 15, 2020. Photo by Glenn Russell/VTDigger GLENN RUSSELL

  • Chief Don Stevens shows a symbol of the Nulhegan band of the Abenaki nation. Photo by Glenn Russell/VTDigger GLENN RUSSELL

Published: 9/30/2020 9:15:29 PM
Modified: 9/30/2020 9:15:22 PM

In a year when the pandemic has kept Vermont lawmakers scrambling, some bills addressing Indigenous issues in the state have gained traction, while others have been pushed aside for now.

Legislators, tribal leaders and the State Commission on Native American Affairs have been working together on legislation important to the state’s four recognized tribes, which gained recognition in 2011 and 2012. Since then, the state has also passed a bill to have Indigenous People’s Day replace Columbus Day, as urged by Rep. Brian Cina, P-Burlington.

But Cina says the state still has work to do. Chiefs from Vermont’s Abenaki tribes agree.

“There has been an acknowledgement from the Legislature that Vermont needs to do more for the Abenaki community in light of the history of colonization and eugenics that has occurred in this land,” Cina said.

A bill to add Abenaki place names on state park signs is now on Gov. Phil Scott’s desk. Cina says he expects Scott to sign the bill, which received nearly unanimous support in both the Senate and the House. 

Earlier this year, H.716, granting free hunting and fishing licenses to tribal members, was signed into law. It takes effect at the start of next year.

But other bills, including one proposing an apology from the state for its involvement in the eugenics movement, have been set aside for this session. According to lawmakers and tribal leaders, COVID-19 is one reason those bills were shelved for now.

“The situation with COVID and the boomerang effects on legislators’ ability to do their work has had a direct impact on some of the things happening in Abenaki country,” said Rich Holschuch, a spokesperson for the Elnu tribe who served previously on the Vermont Commission of Native American Affairs. Holschuch continues to work alongside the commission, particularly on the state park signs bill. He had hoped it would “get over the finish line, given the caseload that the Legislature has.”

“Of course, we’re optimistic,” he said. Previous success stories indicate they have good reason to be.

Hunting and fishing bill is now law

Although the pandemic delayed consideration of H.716, the hunting and fishing bill, it was signed into law earlier this year and takes effect in January. Tribal leaders hope it will promote both food security and food sovereignty, reconnecting tribal members with traditional food systems.

Cina credits Chief Don Stevens for his work on the bill, gaining the support of the Commission of Native American Affairs.

“It’s a very good gesture from the state,” said Chief Roger Longtoe of the Elnu Tribe. He hopes the Legislature will bring people together to hunt and fish. “It’s always been a part of our history, and there’s a lot of us that still hunt and fish, so it helps us.”

For Longtoe, this is a way of strengthening his community. “If I can get tribal members to come and have a hunting camp, it brings us back as a community, and we’re practicing something that’s an old cultural thing.”

Indigenous activists have been vocal about hunting and fishing rights since the 1970s, arguing that Native people in Vermont never gave up these rights to begin with.

For members of Elnu, said Longtoe, hunting and fishing is often a collective effort, and meat is then shared among members. “It’s one of these old traditional practices that I would like to see kept alive,” he said. “I would like to see my grandson and others in the tribe learn to hunt.” Free licenses help make that possible.

While some consider the bill a success, Chief Don Stevens also pointed to its limitations. “We are still not getting the full rights that people who are 66 and over are afforded,” he said. “We got hunting and fishing rights, but we didn’t get the big tags that the senior citizens get.” Free licenses for senior citizens also include bow and muzzleloader.

Tribes that haven’t been granted state recognition don’t reap benefits from the legislation. Nathan Pero, chief of an unrecognized band of Koasek Abenaki, said he joined members of the Iroquois Nation in asking the federal government to grant them subsistence hunting and fishing rights.

“The difference is the state of Vermont says you can only have 16 fish in your possession,” said Pero. “Sixteen fish is not enough to put your family through the winter.”

Instead, Pero is pushing for legislation he says would allow for subsistence hunting throughout the year.

Stevens said that, in Vermont, subsistence hunting and fishing rights were a “nonstarter.”

‘An act of decolonization’

H.880, the state parks sign bill that awaits the governor’s signature, is “an act of decolonization,” said Rep. Cina. “Not erasing the current known name but acknowledging the ancient name and the deeper history of a place.”

This bill has had “overwhelming support,” Cina said. “It means a lot to the Abenaki community.”

Chief Longtoe said the bill is an important reminder of the continued presence of Abenaki in the state. “People think of native people like we were here in the past,” he said. But, “we haven’t disappeared.”

What has happened, Longtoe said, is that Abenaki have been written out of history. “So it’s nice to get written back into the history.”

Using the Abenaki language visibly throughout the state is connected to language revitalization efforts, an area the pandemic has actually bolstered. Now, Abenaki language courses are increasingly online, making them more accessible to students across the country and in Canada.

“The culture is embedded in the language, and if the language is there and available, it’s going to strengthen Abenaki sense of self,” said Holschuch. “Inside of that language, it’s a very different way of seeing the world and being in the world. I think it’s a healthy way of being in the world.”

Still on the shelf

One notable bill tabled for now is J.R.H.7, which proposes an apology from the state for its involvement in the eugenics movements.

Eugenics was passed into law in 1931, and the last forced sterilization took place in 1957. It targeted Native Americans, French Canadians, disabled people and poor people.

“The eugenics apology never made it out because of the COVID situation,” said Chief Stevens. “Different bills were definitely impacted or delayed.”

The bill became further complicated, as Cina, Horschuch and others proposed using J.R.H.7 to form a truth and reconciliation committee that would look more closely at the effects of the eugenics movement.

The idea, Horschuch said, was to “move beyond words on paper.”

Compared to the two bills that have made progress, “that’s a lot heavier,” Cina said. He hopes to take it up again next year.

“Maybe it’s time to have a discussion about colonization,” Cina said, citing not just eugenics, but also “what happened leading up to eugenics.”

Other future initiatives include creating a Native scholarship program and a religious freedom bill that state legislation would ensure access to sacred sites, land protection, and exempting sites from taxation.

That type of legislation already exists at the federal level as the 1978 Native American Religious Freedom Act, but it protects only federally recognized tribes.  

In the state, Cina points to some positive change. “I’m seeing a lot more unity over the years, a lot more solidarity, and hoping that that leads to more gains for the Abenaki community in Vermont,” he said. 

“What benefits the Abenaki community is going to benefit everybody else,” he said. “It’s righting a major wrong. And it enriches people’s lives when they understand the history of the place they’re in.”

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