Who can call themselves Abenaki? Dispute between Vermont, Canadian tribes

Published: Sep. 19, 2022 at 6:30 PM EDT
Email This Link
Share on Pinterest
Share on LinkedIn

BURLINGTON, Vt. (WCAX) - Who qualifies as Abenaki? That’s the question at the center of a disagreement between Vermont Abenaki and Canadian Abenaki.

Vermont’s Abenaki tribes are speaking out against members of the Odanak First Nation, an Abenaki reserve in Quebec.

At a University of Vermont conference, the Canadian tribe claimed Vermont Abenaki aren’t real Abenaki. So the Vermont Commission on Native American Affairs prepared a letter to send to UVM asking for equal time on campus so Vermont tribes can prove their legitimacy.

“They say they’re Abenaki in our hearts. That should be enough. No, that’s not enough,” said Daniel Nolett of the Odanak Abenaki of Canada.

“Folks here know who they are. Accusations are simply that,” said Richard Holschuh of the Vermont Commission on Native American Affairs.

The Vermont Commission on Native American Affairs is responding to claims that people in Vermont who claim to be Abenaki are committing cultural appropriation.

“Where people are diverging is with opinions and personal definition. And those are different, different people with different experiences. Different sides of the border, working under different colonial systems of recognition or nonrecognition,” Holschuh said.

The debate started in April when members of the Odanak First Nation, an Abenaki reserve in Quebec spoke at UVM about who should be considered indigenous.

“They had the microphone for the last 30 years and we just went for a morning for a three-hour conference and it’s all in an uproar,” said Jacques Watso of the Odanak Abenaki of Canada.

Odanak leaders say the tribe was largely excluded from Vermont’s debate over whether or not to recognize Abenaki tribes and that many of the Vermont Abenaki have been unable to prove they are truly indigenous.

“They are fraudulently appropriating a culture and heritage that is not theirs. And they put forward a political system through the Vermont Legislature where it’s a purely political way to get their state recognition, so they misled the Vermonters and the Vermont legislators in passing their laws into legislation where they recognize these four tribes,” Watso said.

Members of the Canadian tribes say that falsely laying claim to their culture can be detrimental. They are calling on the state of Vermont to revoke its recognition.

Gov. Phil Scott says he is aware of the concerns surrounding the legitimacy of Vermont’s four state-recognized tribes but stands by the state’s decision.

“We have committed to the Vermont Abenakis,” said Scott, R-Vermont.

John Watanabe is an anthropologist at Dartmouth College. He says the issue of identity is full of complexity and that this fight over who is really Abenaki is not unique.

“You’ve got a really complicated, multi-level kind of situation here... One of the things that we’ve learned about ethnicity and identity is that it’s always a two-sided thing. It’s on the one hand how you feel and have you identified, so self-identification is very important but that’s never always the whole case,” Watanabe said.

Once the Vermont Commission on Native American Affairs has a final copy of the letter, they will send it to UVM.