MONTPELIER, Vt. — Members of Vermont Indian tribes have renewed hope for state recognition, which some have been seeking for decades and the Abenaki tribe needs to sell its signature baskets and other crafts as Indian-made.
A new state law creates a process for a Vermont commission to recommend tribal recognition, which the Abenaki hope will also allow them to seek federal funding for education and other benefits.
“It’s not just for us. It’s for kids, it’s for our grandkids,” said Dawn Macie, 51, of Rutland, a member of the Nulhegan band of the Abenaki.
Gov. Jim Douglas appointed Macie, who makes Abenaki drums, jewelry and bags, to the revamped commission, which will meet for the first time next month.
Under federal law, artisans must be members of state- or federally recognized tribes — or be certified as nonmember Indian artisans by a tribe — to sell their wares as Indian-made.
Such labeling of crafts would allow the tribe to “really sell them for what they’re worth,” Macie said.
Drums that sell for $90 to $130 could go for up to $200, she said. Handmade, intricately woven grass and splint ash baskets range from $20 to more than $1,000.
At least 1,700 Vermonters say they are direct descendants of the Western Abenaki tribes inhabited all Vermont and New Hampshire, and parts of Maine, Quebec and New York for hundreds of years before the arrival of the Europeans. They include the Missisquoi and Cowasuck Abenaki who farmed the river floodplains of Vermont at least as long ago as 1100s AD, the law said.
But the state of Vermont has been reluctant to recognize the Abenaki, in the past fearing it could bolster one tribe’s bid to win federal recognition, which opponents said could lead to land claims and gambling casinos. (There are no federally recognized tribes in Vermont.)
Over the years, the Vermont attorney general’s office has questioned the Abenaki tribe’s heritage in Vermont and opposed federal recognition, which the Missisquoi tribe was denied in 2007.
The new law and commission are a step toward state recognition, commission members and legislators say.
“It’s not about casinos, land grabs,” said state Sen. Diane Snelling, R-Chittenden, co-sponsor.
The law is intended to address the shortcomings of a bill passed in 2006 that created the commission and recognized the Abenaki as a minority population in Vermont, but failed to allow them to label their crafts as Native American.
It’s more objective than a bill that failed in 2007 that would have recognized three distinct bands of Abenaki, Snelling said.
“We tried to figure it out who qualified before. There was a lot of energy around, ‘Well, some tribes just automatically qualify.’ … Now they’ll set some standards and then everybody who meets the standards is in,” she said.
Alabama, Georgia, North Carolina, South Carolina and Virginia have state-recognized tribes, said Ken Van Wey, program assistant for the Indian Arts and Crafts Board, which is part of the U.S. Department of Interior.
North Carolina and Virginia have commissions that identify tribes that are not federally recognized, for the purposes of selling arts and crafts.
The Vermont law changed the makeup of the commission, and expanded it from seven members to nine. Members must be Vermont residents for at least three years and from a diversity of affiliations and areas of the state. The commission includes several members in their 20s.
The law also set up a process for tribes to be recognized by showing that they meet certain criteria documented by genealogical and membership records and other factors.
Applications will be reviewed by a three-member panel of experts. Based on the panel’s findings, the commission will make recommendations for recognition to the Legislature, which has the final say.
“I have a lot of hope that the Legislature will act quickly because this has been a very long, long process that has taken many years, and has aged people,” said commission member Luke Willard, of Brownington, the former chief of the Nulhegan band of Abenaki.