State Says Abenaki Do Not Have "Continuous Presence"

03/20/02 12:00AM By John Dillon

(Host) The Vermont attorney general's office is casting doubt on claims by Abenaki Indians that they have been in the state for generations.

The Abenaki need to show a continuous presence in Vermont in order to win federal recognition as a tribe. The state is fighting tribal recognition. Officials fear that the tribe could assert land claims or open a gambling casino. The attorney general's office has just released a preliminary report that tries to disprove the Abenaki's claims.

VPR's John Dillon has more.


(Dillon) This is a debate that's being waged with old census records, genealogy reports and archaeological studies.

Lawyers at the attorney general's office have been digging through the past as they try to support their argument against Abenaki tribal recognition.

The U.S. Bureau of Indian Affairs says that to win recognition, a group must prove that it's been identified as an Indian tribe on a substantially continuous basis since 1900. William Griffin, Vermont's chief assistant attorney general, says the federal government looks to census data and other hard evidence. Griffin says in the Abenaki's case, the evidence just isn't there:

(Griffin) "I think it was surprising to find that for many of those censuses, starting around the turn of the century and on into the 1940s and 1950s, there were no individuals who identified themselves as Native Americans or Indians."

(Dillon) The Abenaki and their ancestors lived in Vermont long before Europeans arrived. But the state's report says the Indians retreated to Quebec at the end of the eighteenth century. The report summarizes state census records and cites scholarly surveys conducted from 1782 to 1974. The census data show no Indians at all in Franklin County from 1860 to 1970.

But Fred Wiseman, curator of the Abenaki museum in Swanton, says there's strong archaeological and cultural evidence that Abenaki's have had a continuous presence in northwestern Vermont.

He says the state recently helped protect a nineteenth century Abenaki burial ground in Franklin County. Wiseman says the attorney general's report fails to cite this kind of evidence:

(Wiseman) "I think they're ignoring all the anthropological and archeological research, because, of course, that's where the information lies. It doesn't lie in the records of a government that was during the nineteenth century deliberately oppressing native people."

(Dillon) Governor Howard Dean is concerned that if the Abenaki won federal tribal status, they would open a gambling casino and assert land claims.

Wiseman says the state's report is racially motivated and part of a long history of the state fighting Abenaki rights.

For Vermont Public Radio, I'm John Dillon.
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