Candidate Forum For Historic Abenaki Election

Denise Watso, a descendant of the legendary Abenaki Chief Louis Watso who lived in Lake George Village for a time and figures prominently in Native American life there in the 19th century, sent the following press release about an upcoming candidate forum in Albany tomorrow, October 24th.

This is a significant event in the history of the Abenaki Nation. It was only within this decade that the substantial membership of the Odanak Abenaki First Nation living in the Albany metro area have been able to vote for their chief and council members. This is the first election in which off-reserve Abenaki are able to run for office as well as vote.

Here is the press release:

The Capitol District will host one of three forums for Abenaki voters to hear directly from candidates for Chief and Council of the Odanak Abenaki First Nation. The forum will be held from 12-4 PM, Saturday, October 24 at the German-American Club, 32 Cherry Street, Albany, NY 12205. This is an exciting time in the history of the Abenaki people – all Abenaki enrolled at Odanak are invited and encouraged to attend with their families.

Two additional forums will be held during the election season at Sudbury, Ontario, and on-reserve at Odanak. Elections will be held Saturday, November 28, 2009, although voters may also cast their ballots by mail.

The Abenaki are the aboriginal people associated with homelands in much of northern New England and adjacent parts of New York, Massachusetts and Quebec, as well as with the Odanak (Saint Francis) and Wolinak (Becancour) reserves in central Quebec (and historically with the Penobscot Nation in Maine, too). Abenaki derives from Wabanaki (“people from where the sun rises,” “people of the east,” or “people of the dawn”), and this latter term is often used in a general sense to refer collectively to the Mi’kmaq, Malecite, Passamaquoddy, Penobscot and Abenaki peoples.

While many Abenaki have been thought of as “Saint Francis Indians,” living at Odanak, in truth many Abenaki families have maintained part-time or full-time residence within their homelands south of the border continuously since the American Revolution. In fact, the first election held by the Odanak First Nation under the Indian Act, the legislation regulating aboriginal affairs in Canada, occurred January 18, 1876, after many Abenaki (and their Indian Agent) complained that the three chiefs serving the community at the time – Louis Watso, Solomon Benedict and Jean Hannis – were away from the reserve so often that two additional chiefs were required to ensure adequate representation. (The aged chief Louis Watso was actually living at Lake George, where a good deal of his family resided.) Samuel Watso and Lazare Wawanolett were chosen from a field of six candidates, and elections for office have been held at regular intervals ever since.

Abenaki history on the upper Hudson dates to at least the late 17th century when many ancestors of the modern Abenaki people lived at Schaghticoke, near the mouth of the Hoosic River. Continuing Abenaki presence in New York State is attested to by such notable 19th century Adirondack Abenaki as Sabael Benedict, Mitchell Sabattis, and the late 19th/early 20th century Indian Encampments at Saratoga Springs, Lake George and Lake Luzerne were primarily occupied by Abenaki. Despite a lack of recognition by the U.S. Bureau of Indian Affairs, these Abenaki families have persisted within and beyond their homelands: today, the Albany metro region is a major Abenaki population center. Other significant concentrations of Abenaki people are located in Waterbury, CT- Newport, VT- and Sudbury, Ontario.

This will be the second time that a formal forum for candidates for Chief and Council has been held in Albany. Approximately 60 people attended a similar event two years ago, and an even higher turn-out is expected this weekend. Off-reserve Abenaki were not allowed to vote in Odanak’s election until after the Supreme Court of Canada’s 1999 Corbiere ruling struck down the voter residency requirement of Canada’s Indian Act.

The importance of the off-reserve vote has been increasing with each passing election. This election, however, may bring about even greater change as it will be the first time since the Indian Act was enacted that off-reserve Abenaki will be eligible to accept a nomination for office (per the 2007 Federal Court of Appeals’ Esquega decision). The potential impact of this development places an even greater spotlight on the role of off-reserve voters in the civic affairs of the Abenaki Nation.

It is also a point of pride for many Abenaki who think of both Odanak and the Albany area as home. Susan Marshall, a lifelong resident of Albany and Rensselaer, is looking forward to attending the candidate’s forum and voting for her first time. “I just wish my mom (Mary Jane Nagazoa) was here to see this, knowing how proud she would be.”

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