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Love Our Vermont State-Recognized Abenaki Tribal Members and All Abenaki People Living in Vermont

By A.J. Ruben

Over the last several years — and increasing at an alarming rate over the last several months — there has been a dismaying onslaught of negative statements, presentations, and media reports attacking the integrity and existence of Abenaki people living in Vermont. The recent attacks by some Native people and UVM-affiliated academics have and continue to cause harm — emotional pain and real physical danger — to the elders, children, and all Abenaki people in Vermont. 

The people making the attacks on Abenaki people in Vermont are affiliated with the Canadian-recognized Odanak and Wolinak reservations, who are themselves affiliated in many ways with Canadian government interests, especially HydroQuebec. HydroQuebec is planning on a lot of development of transmission lines across the international border, on lands traditionally occupied by Western Abenaki people and for which there is unclear title from an aboriginal title point of view. HydroQuebec is concerned about potential obstacles to development posed by dormant aboriginal land claims. See theglobeandmail.com/business/article-hydro-quebec-begins-talks-for-185-billion-strategy-to-wean-the/

One possible motivation for the aggressive attacks on the Abenaki people in Vermont is that Odanak and Wolinak leadership, with financial and strategic support from HydroQuebec, believes in the not-so-distant future the Odanak and Wolinak people will be able to assert lucrative legal land claims to land currently understood to be Vermont. See Beyond Borders Conference UVM May 2022 at 1:46 minutes at youtube.com/watch?v=O8t3LxwhBhI 

It has always been the Abenaki people in Vermont, not leadership from the Odanak and Wolinak people, keeping the Abenaki ways alive and protecting the Abenaki culture within Vermont borders. Where was the leadership of the Odanak and Wolinak when Grandma Lampman had to take her family into the swamp to hide from white people’s violence, or when a Canadian land developer bulldozed that land for subdivisions and the community fought back to save it? Or when the eugenics programs in Vermont focused its dastardly attention on “Indians” in Vermont? Where was the leadership of the Odanak and Wolinak when ancestral burial grounds were being desecrated and the bones of Abenaki ancestors were housed in storage rooms in Vermont state buildings? Where was the leadership of the Odanak and Wolinak when the Abenaki language in Vermont was dying out and before the Middlebury College language program agreed to add Abenaki to their offerings? Where was the leadership of the Odanak and Wolinak when Chief Homer St. Francis asserted Aboriginal rights to fish in Vermont and won before a Vermont judge that issued the amazing 186-page decision detailing how and why the Abenaki in Vermont did have Aboriginal rights based on current law and their continuing governmental and cultural existence here? The answers are that the leadership of the Odanak and Wolinak either did not care, were not involved, or, if involved, the leadership of the Odanak and Wolinak was supporting the actions taken by Abenaki actually living in Vermont. 

The people (Vermonters) involved in the comprehensive state recognition process did their best to serve the common good and did a very good job. The evidence received by those involved in the decision to recognize the four tribes in Vermont was determined to be appropriate and sufficient by our elected leaders and those appointed by them to carry out the legislative mandate. The process included genealogical, scholarly, and testimonial evidence. The leadership of the Odanak and Wolinak was absolutely involved as demonstrated by the official records of the proceedings that documented at least two Odanak representatives testifying or submitting testimony. That process, for which all Vermonters should be proud, worked as intended and resulted in a just and fair outcome. 

Disgustingly, but not surprisingly, many non-native peoples, including UVM professor Massell and University of Ottawa associate professor Darryl Leroux, have jumped on the “hate Vermont Abenaki people because they are frauds and destroying native culture while stealing money that should go to real natives” bandwagon. Through these harmful and erroneous actions, these non-native people gain notoriety and power within their communities. 

Let us all take a breath and remember what values and behaviors we cherish and want to convey to our children — including grace, compassion, adherence to facts, and respect for other people, including being especially careful when asserting positions that harm historically disenfranchised communities. Let us all love our neighbors who understand themselves to be part of the great Abenaki people and listen to them rather than attack them. Let us focus on the facts and discuss them together to ensure mutual understanding and acceptance. These aspirations will provide for the outcomes that benefit the majority of people and limit the harm done to others.

Thank you for your efforts to learn about, understand more about, and act to support our Abenaki neighbors. 

A.J. Ruben is an attorney at Black Bear Legal Services in Pittsfield, Vermont. 

The material presented here represents the opinion of the author and does not reflect the opinions of The Bridge. Commentaries may be submitted to editor@montpelierbridge.com. Preference is given to submissions by those who live in central Vermont. Submissions are encouraged to be 500 to 750 words in length.