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UVM officials apologize to Vt. state-recognized tribes while Odanak reps continue to denounce them

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During a University of Vermont event last spring, representatives of Odanak First Nation reiterated their stance that Vermont’s state-recognized tribes have not provided genealogical or historical support showing they are Abenaki. A UVM official apologized on Wednesday to the Vermont Commission on Native American Affairs for the harm caused to the state-recognized tribes.

A University of Vermont official apologized for causing harm to state-recognized tribes through an event hosted by the school last spring.

The event, held last April, featured Abenaki representatives from Odanak First Nation in Quebec. They reiterated their stance that Vermont’s state-recognized tribes have not provided genealogical or historical support showing they are Abenaki.

A 2002 report by the state attorney general's office, when one group was applying for federal recognition, came to the same conclusion.

But the groups reject those claims, and Vermont formally recognized four tribes in 2011 and 2012. (The petition for federal recognition was ultimately rejected. The Bureau of Indian Affairs said “less than 1%” of the individuals cited in the application demonstrated Abenaki ancestry.)

In a letter to UVM officials last fall, the Vermont Commission on Native American Affairs said the event with Odanak First Nation last spring made UVM students from state-recognized tribes feel unsafe.

More from Vermont Public: Members, allies of Vermont state-recognized tribes reject 'Pretendian' claims

At a commission meeting Wednesday, UVM Provost Patricia Prelock apologized verbally.

She did not, however, provide a written statement as requested by Commission Chair Rich Holschuh.

“I apologize that harm was done, to the community, to families, students, to parents,” Prelock said.

“I apologize that harm was done, to the community, to families, students, to parents."
Patricia Prelock, UVM Provost

She specifically said she was disappointed in the part of last spring's event when panelists named people who they alleged were not actually Abenaki.

"That was not productive and not scholarship," Prelock said. "And we'll try and do better."

Commissioner Jeff Benay asked Prelock and other UVM officials how they might address this problem.

“So how would we talk to the folks about you know, that UVM is serious in terms of we want to make things better?" Benay said.

UVM officials said they would be willing to meet with students and parents.

Other commissioners thanked the UVM officials for coming to the meeting and addressing their concerns.

"It's hurtful really, it really is, to the Natives here in Vermont," said Commissioner Doug Bent. "And it's hurtful that the Odanak feel the way they do about the people from Vermont, Abenaki. It's like we're the ugly stepsister, stepbrother, or whatever, and they don't want nothing to do with us."

Odanak citizens remind public of opposition to state-recognized tribes

At the same meeting, Abenaki citizens of Odanak First Nation reminded the public of their opposition to Vermont’s state-recognized tribes.

Isaak Lachapelle-Gill, a citizen of Odanak First Nation, said Odanak as well as Wolinak First Nation — another Abenaki community in Quebec — do not recognize the groups claiming to be Abenaki in Vermont or New Hampshire.

“We have asked them to validate their Abenaki claims, and show us how we are related, and they have not," Lachapelle-Gill said.

More from Vermont Public: Odanak First Nation denounces Vt. state-recognized tribes as 'Pretendian'

Vermont’s state-recognized tribes have previously said that Abenaki people were targets of the Vermont Eugenics Survey, and hid their identities because of it.

Lachapelle-Gill challenged that assertion: "Our community has lived the challenges of being Native, but we were never targeted by the Vermont Eugenics Survey. We have been visible in our territory and active in Vermont society. We have not hidden, and you can find mention of us in Vermont's newspapers, public documents and histories through the last several centuries."

The 2002 state's attorney general office report also found little evidence for the claim that the Eugenics Survey targeted Abenaki people.

In response to Odanak First Nation's questioning of their legitimacy, state-recognized tribes have pointed out that they went through Vermont's state-recognition process. Nulhegan Abenaki Tribe Chief Don Stevens said this again on Wednesday.

"Unfortunately, we do not have the right to self-identify," Stevens said. "[W]e had to go through a European process to then decide what our status is, just like Odanak did with the First Nations in Canada. So unfortunately, we have to also be under that umbrella to have a seat at the table."

"Unfortunately, we do not have the right to self-identify," Stevens said. "[W]e had to go through a European process to then decide what our status is, just like Odanak did with the First Nations in Canada. So unfortunately, we have to also be under that umbrella to have a seat at the table."
Chief Don Stevens, Nulhegan Abenaki Tribe

But Lachapelle-Gill said the commission, which oversees the state-recognition process, was created and staffed with members from those groups.

At Wednesday’s meeting, commissioners received a request from both Odanak and Wolinak First Nations to have time to speak at the next commission meeting about the state-recognition process.

“I'm here to ask that you as a state commission make time on your next agenda for the entire chief and council of Odanak First Nation and representatives from Wolinak Council," said Odanak citizen Mali Obomsawin. "Our leaders would like to address concerns about state recognition and your work on behalf of the self-identified Abenakis and taxpayers of Vermont. As the Indigenous people of this land, we would like an opportunity to speak.”

Commission Chair Rich Holschuh said the body could entertain that request.

"Our community has lived the challenges of being Native, but we were never targeted by the Vermont Eugenics Survey. We have been visible in our territory and active in Vermont society. We have not hidden, and you can find mention of us in Vermont's newspapers, public documents and histories through the last several centuries."
Isaak Lachapelle-Gill, Odanak First Nation citizen

Odanak First Nation has also asked but not been able to secure face-to-face meetings with UVM. At the meeting on Wednesday, Obomsawin asked UVM officials why.

“Why do you continue to show us disrespect by refusing to answer Odanak’s letters, and our requests to initiate a relationship grounded in history, scholarly integrity and Indigenous rights?" they said. "We ask you to consider working with us towards justice, to honor our ancestors and to build a dignified future for all of our children.”

Prelock said it was not the role of her institution to get involved in the politics of tribal recognition.

"As a land grant institution of higher education, we follow our state and the rules and regulations of that state," she said. "We offer scholarship and different points of view. But it's not our role to engage in the political elements of what's happening. I feel badly, and I'm hoping that the tribes can come together, but that is not our role."

The Vermont Commission on Native American Affairs next meets on March 8.

Have questions, comments or tips? Send digital producer and reporter Elodie Reed a message:

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Corrected: February 9, 2023 at 9:04 PM EST
This story previously contained an incorrect spelling of the Vermont Commission on Native American Affairs.
Elodie is a reporter and producer for Vermont Public. She previously worked as a multimedia journalist at the Concord Monitor, the St. Albans Messenger and the Monadnock Ledger-Transcript, and she's freelanced for The Atlantic, the Christian Science Monitor, the Berkshire Eagle and the Bennington Banner. In 2019, she earned her MFA in creative nonfiction writing from Southern New Hampshire University.