Wednesday, May 04, 2005

Abenaki in Vermont

Moderate Republican governor Jim Douglas of Vermont has come out against recognizing the Abenaki as a native American tribe and the battle goes on.

The Vermont Abenaki story is a case study in what it means to be a part of a marginalized culture. The mountains between the Connecticut River and Lake Champlain had been used by native peoples since the glacier receded about 9300BC. The land was sparsely populated due to the difficult climate and terrain, and for some of the time may have been used only seasonally, but by the late Woodland period (2nd millenium BC until historic times) there was a progression to less mobile culture in the area. When Europeans first came to Vermont, the area had been cleared out by diseases spreading from Massachusetts and other southern colonies, and so the idea developed that Vermont had never had any Indians. The archaeological record however, belies this notion. The Indians using the region of present day Vermont at the time of first European contact were the Abenaki.

As European immigrants swept away native resistance over time, the Abenaki concentrated themselves in the Missisquoi (NW Vermont) area and were eventually dispossessed of their lands by Ira Allen (Ethan's brother) after what was probably a fabricated incident. Those who did not flee to Canada survived by becoming invisible: they lived among the Europeans, adopted their tools and dress, and learned English and French. However, they claim to have maintained the core of their cultural identity until they were 'rediscovered' in the 1970s by the ethnohistorian John Moody.

Throughout this lost time period, Abenakis either lived outside the view of civilization, hunting and fishing on ancestral grounds without contact with Euro-Americans, or kept a low ethnic profile while living among Europeans. They also intermarried extensively. Some characteristic features that are preserved today though include extended families living under one roof, a particular pattern of familial authority, certain religious beliefs (though many consider themselves Christian), and respect for hunting and trapping territories.

In the 1970s the Abenaki began to seek exemption from permits for hunting and fishing. The legitimacy of their status as a tribe became the central issue, and they never permanently attained tribal recognition. Certain cultural differences, such as attitude towards time (whether Roger's Rangers raid during the French and Indian War is seen as a current event) may point toward a real cultural difference, but it is difficult to translate that into a legal criterion for membership in the tribe when there has not been a continuous political entity for 200 years.

Today the struggle for state recognition (which is seen as a step toward federal recognition) is hampered by a fear of reservation gambling among state officials. Let's hope that an arrangement can eventually be worked out the preserves the state's legitimate interest to avoid casinos and license fraud, and the tribe's interest in attaining access to hunting and fishing rights. Even in the 21st century, Native American relations is not usually where we see Americans at our best.

Information cited from The Original Vermonters by WA Haviland and MW Power.
See also the official Abenaki website.


At 9:35 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Another Abeanki website is


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