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Law granting limited Abenaki subsistence rights has been long time coming

Published: Jul. 20, 2020 at 4:50 PM EDT|Updated: Jul. 20, 2020 at 5:09 PM EDT
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BURLINGTON, Vt. (WCAX) - Vermont Governor Phil Scott has signed a bill that grants members of four Abenaki tribes recognized by the state, the ability to apply for free, permanent hunting and fishing licenses. As Ike Bendavid reports, the recognition of the limited subsistence rights has been a long time coming.

On a hot summer day, Roland Bluto casts his line into Lake Champlain. "Fishing and hunting has always been a big part of our culture," Bluto said.

The member of the Nulhegan Abenaki tribe, says it was a long-awaited relief when Gov. Scott signed the bill last week welcoming the members of four recognized Abenaki tribes to hunt and fish for free.

“It matters a lot. I don’t know if I can find the right words to express myself on that,” Bluto said.

Don Stevens, chief of the Nulhegan Abenaki tribe, says the issue dates back to historical agreements between their ancestors and the first settlers of our region. "It's important in the fact that we are not asking for anything new. They are basically recognizing those ancient agreements," Stevens said.

The law comes after decades of fighting for state tribal recognition and subsistence rights, including unlicensed fishing in protest. Unlike many federally-recognized tribes, the Abenaki have no land base.

Under the law, the approximately 6,000 enrolled members will get their base hunting and fishing licenses for free. It does not include additional add-ons or tags. Chief Stevens says it will help their people get access to natural food sources. “We are still here, we still exist, and we have a lot to contribute,” Stevens said.

Vt. Fish and Wildlife Commissioner Louis Porter says that the department supports the decision. "This is a right, a historical traditional right of the Abenaki that's been denied for a long time," he said.

But there will be a financial impact. Porter says they estimate there will be more then a $45,000 annual loss in revenue, but he says it is a minor piece of the entire department's budget when it comes to the larger picture.

"The most important thing for us is that people get a feel and that they pursue these activities, whether it's hunting and fishing or wildlife watching, that they are engaged with nature and the environment. And obviously, this bill will result in more people being engaged in the environment," Porter said.

Back at the lake, Bluto says he is excited to pass the tradition on for generations."Oh man, it's like watching the sunrise come up on a beautiful morning -- all of a sudden you didn't have it and it and the next day you did," he said.

The law will go into effect in January.

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