Vermont’s Abenakis Seek Formal Tribal Recognition

By Eesha Wiliams, Reformer Staff
March 27, 2003

BRATTLEBORO — This year marks the 250th anniversary of the founding of European settlements in Brattleboro, Rockingham, and six other Windham County towns.

But local American Indians may not feel like celebrating the arrival of Europeans, said Abenaki Chief April St. Francis Rushlow. “Brattleboro and all of Vermont outside of Bennington County was our homeland for thousands of years,” she said. “People need to recognize that we still exist.”

According to the Census Bureau, in 2000 there were 2,453 Native Americans in Vermont and 88 in Windham County.

The Abenaki applied to the state for tribal recognition in the early 1970s. In 1976, then-Gov. Thomas Salmon approved their request, but one year later, then-Gov. Richard Snelling reversed Salmon’s decision.

In 1982, the Abenaki applied to the Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA) for recognition, which could lead to the tribe getting some of their land back from the federal government.

BIA spokesman Daniel DuBray said there are 12 tribes ahead of the Abenaki on the queue of those waiting for formal recognition. DuBray said he “couldn’t possibly predict” when a response would be forthcoming.

Vermont Law School Professor of Law Bruce Duthu, an American Indian whose article about tribal recognition recently appeared in The New York Times Magazine, said: “The Abenakis have one of the strongest cases for federal recognition of any of the tribes in the queue. But the BIA cares a lot about the governor’s position on the tribe.”

Gov. James Douglas’ spokesman, Jason Gibbs, referred questions about the Abenaki’s recognition request to Attorney General William Sorrell.

Sorrell’s spokeswoman, Ruth Hooker, referred to a 254-page report Sorrell issued in January, “State of Vermont’s Response to Petition for Federal Acknowledgment of the St. Francis/Sokoki Band of the Abenaki Nation of Vermont.”

The report urges the BIA not to recognize the Abenaki. “On the four criteria for federal acknowledgment examined, the evidence raises serious questions about the existence of a tribe of Abenakis in Vermont who are a continuation of the historical Abenakis,” Sorrell wrote. “The presence of serious questions regarding the evidence on all four of them requires a finding against federal acknowledgment.”

A recent Washington Post article about the Abenaki’s application for tribal recognition quotes from a 1776 history of Quebec that says the Abenaki have lived in the area “since time unknown to any of us here.”

Archaeological records prove the Abenaki have lived in the Brattleboro area for at least 10,000 years, said Richard Ewald, director of development for the town of Rockingham and a historian who has studied the Abenaki.

“Many Native Americans in Vermont have chosen to assimilate and have essentially disappeared,” he said.

Dartmouth College History Professor Colin Calloway estimates in his book “Western Abenakis of Vermont, 1600-1800” that there were 90,000 Native Americans in New England in 1600, and only 93,000 Europeans in New England in 1700.

Calloway estimates there were 10,000 Abenaki in Vermont and New Hampshire in 1600. Of those, 3,800 lived along the Connecticut River.

By 1650, up to 98 percent of the Abenaki had been killed by European infectious disease such as smallpox, measles and influenza, Calloway writes.

Abenaki Nation
Vermont Attorney General
U.S. Bureau of Indian Affairs

Judge Rules in Burial Suit

By Lisa Rathke, Associated Press
September 7, 2001

MONTPELIER, Vt. (AP) Efforts to protect ancient Indian burial grounds in Swanton and Highgate moved forward this week on two fronts: a committee studying the issue has decided to take a proposal to the Legislature and a judge ruled that the Abenakis have the right to sue property owners seeking to build on the site.

Superior Court Judge Michael Katz has ruled that the Abenakis have the right to sue Michael Jedware, who owns property on Monument Road in Swanton and Highgate near where the Abenakis say their ancestors are buried.

The Abenakis first must prove that the remains exist and that they are ancestors of the Abenakis, the ruling said.

Tuesday’s decision came in response to motions filed by the state and developer Michael Jedware to dismiss last year’s case brought by the Abenaki Nation.

The Abenakis have asked the state to prevent Jedware from building on two plots of land near where their ancestors’ remains have been found for fear the work could turn up more graves, said April Rushlow, chief of the Sovereign Nation of the Abenaki of Missisquoi.

For the Abenakis, the decision not to throw out part of their case was a critical one in a decades-long dispute that has sparked protests by the Abenakis; the state to buy land from property owners to protect the remains; and state, local and Abenaki officials to come together to talk about how to deal with development in the area.

”I think it’s a pretty good decision,” Rushlow said.

”It acknowledges that the Abenakis have a special position in being able to bring a suit under the statutes protecting burial grounds,” said Michael Straub, an attorney representing the Abenakis.

A lawyer for Jedware, who lives in Florida, could not be reached for comment.

Katz dismissed several parts of suit, including the Abenakis’ claim that the state, which must be consulted if remains are found during construction, failed to properly protect the site.

”If there is a failure to comply with the permit, that is a matter for the agency not for this Court,” Katz wrote.

A Superior Court judge stopped a Highgate couple from building a house after the Abenakis filed a similar injunction last spring. At least 15 remains were found, Rushlow said. The state eventually bought the land and helped the landowners relocate.

Swanton and Highgate officials have created a policy that they hope will become law.

The proposal suggests that the state pay for geographic studies to determine if the graves exist. If remains are found, the policy suggests several solutions, including having the state buy the land.