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, has come out in opposition to Vermont state recognition several Abenaki bands and tribes. In March a recognition bill [pdf] made it out of the Vermont Senate’s Committee on Economic Development, Housing and General Affairs.
At least fifteen other American states have recognized resident native people as American Indian Tribes, without federal recognition. In 2006, a similar effort by the Vermont General Assembly fell short. Charles Delaney-Megeso, chair of the Vermont Commission on Native American Affairs (VCNAA) supports the bill. The text of the bill describing it’s intent and Watso’s letter in opposition are below- Delaney-Megso’s letter of support can be found here.
Text of the bill that describes it’s intent:
This bill proposes to recognize the following tribes as the original Western Abenaki Indian tribes residing in Vermont: the Abenaki Nation of Missisquoi St. Francis Sokoki Band, composed of the Missisquoi, St. Francis, and Sokoki Bands- the Koasek Traditional Band of the Koas Abenaki Nation- the Nulhegan Band of the Abenaki Nation, also known as the Northern Coosuk/Old Philip’s Band- and the ELNU Abenaki Tribe of the Koasek. The bill also proposes to amend the composition of the Vermont commission on Native American affairs, and to adopt the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples.
Letter from Denise Watso:
I humbly request that members of the state legislatures of Vermont oppose S.222, a bill designed to confer state recognition upon groups who claim the rights, lands, and ancestors of Abenaki people without offering any proof to support these claims. I further request that the House Committee on General, Housing and Military Affairs allow testimony from historically-known Abenaki people regardless of whether their primary residence is in Vermont, New York, Canada or elsewhere. We are the “Original Vermonters.”
As a historically-known Abenaki person with documented evidence in the records of Vermont, (in the mid 1800s, John Watso, my grandfather’s grandfather, shared many Champlain Valley place-names in the Abenaki language with Rowland Robinson), part of our Abenaki original territories, I would like to voice my grave concerns with this bill and the impacts it will have on Abenaki people. How can the Vermont legislature pass such a genocidal law, removing my people from the history books and denying us our rights? How can they accept the word of people who refuse to provide evidence of how they are connected to historically-known Abenaki families? How can this be anything but an abandonment of their responsibilities to the Abenaki people and to all Vermonters, Indian and non-Indian?
Indian law is not the jurisdiction of state government, and our territories extend beyond the boundaries of states and countries. However state recognition and standing committees can accomplish much good for us all. All historically-known Abenaki people should be recognized by Vermont’s government as part of a sovereign nation, and as partners moving into the future.
These new groups such as the “Elnu”, the “Koasek”, the “St. Francis-Sokoki”, and others should be asked to provide their evidence rather than have their claims accepted without question. Just a few years ago, Vermont’s Attorney General and the U.S. Bureau of Indian Affairs found no evidence that this last group, the “St. Francis-Sokoki”, were anything more than a social group. The first group, the “Elnu”, are well-known reenactors. Some Indians are reenactors, but being a reenactor does not make you Indian and therefore elgible for the possiblity of Federal Recognition.
The burden of proof must be on these new claimants to our Abenaki heritage, and Vermont’s political officials should not allow such a great travesty to pass with the stroke of a pen. These groups are allowed to be make claims based on family assumptions and declarations of Indian heritage, this is nothing more than self-identification to the U.S. Bureau of Indian Affairs, the entity that determines and denied the “St.Francis group”. The Bill to be decided by the Vermont government is not equipped to make such determinations, possibly perpetrating violence against the original Abenaki of Vermont.
We are a historically documented people. We were never in hiding as the storyline has been woven to support the baseless claims of self-identified “Abenaki”. We have suffered the loss of our lands, the denial of our indigenous rights, the creation of an international border, warfare, poverty, oppressive governments, residential schools, racism and so much more. And now outsiders dictate our history to us and demand to be recognized at our expense. Why? So THEY can sell baskets and traditional arts which WE have long produced so that we might survive generation after generation. So THEY can access Federal funds to teach their children about OUR ancestors? So THEY can learn to speak OUR first language? So THEY can continue to claim the bones of OUR ancestors?
This is contrary to the spirit of the U.N. Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples endorsed by S.222. It is not too late, however, to address the injustices faced by generations of my people. Now is the time for Vermont’s elected leaders to work with historically-known Abenaki people to establish new relationships that respect our indigenous rights and our human dignity, and that strive to secure a better future for all the residents of our ancient homeland.
Our ancestor’s voices will be heard as we continue to speak and keep our names in honor of them. Abenaki names are still alive and spoken, it is not a hidden secret as these self identified claim. The legislators of Vermont must allow us to voice our grave concerns. This Bill will have the biggest impact and detriment on our Abenaki community, children’s future and ancestor’s legacy.
We will proudly share our Abenaki history and historically known names with the Vermont State legislators.
Denise L. Watso (wajo)