Prominent Abenaki Opposes VT Tribe Recognitions

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 &#8220Original Vermonters.&#8221

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 &#8220Elnu&#8221, the &#8220Koasek&#8221, the &#8220St. Francis-Sokoki&#8221, 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 &#8220St. Francis-Sokoki&#8221, were anything more than a social group. The first group, the &#8220Elnu&#8221, 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 &#8220St.Francis group&#8221. 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 &#8220Abenaki&#8221. 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)

5 thoughts on “Prominent Abenaki Opposes VT Tribe Recognitions

  • November 30, -0001 at 12:00 am

    Denise you have written a beautiful letter paying tribute to your ancestors. I am also of native descent and I appose Vermont bill S222 and HB610 in New Hampshire. Both do not require genealogical proof. Genealogical and historical proof must be included as part of this bill so the true individual of NA descent can benefit, instead of non natives who claim to be NA.
    Sharon Niemann-Testa

  • November 30, -0001 at 12:00 am

    Denise thank you so much for your letter to the Vermont State legislators!

    Apparently every protest has been taken seriously and the Bill has now been slowed down until the testimony of all involved has been heard and weighed for accuracy.

    Simply taking the word of the few most vocal,though historically inaccurate “new” bands

    in Vermont has been reversed, and common sense and actual proofs will now prevail!


    I greatly appreciate your work, insight, and continued involvement on S.222.

    Our House committee received the bill from the Senate a couple of weeks ago and has taken extensive testimony, seeking to build on that work with the best way forward for our state and the ability to honor and acknowledge its indigenous peoples.

    This has included weighing the legal, legislative, historical, and political ramifications of the language as written. What has been brought to light for us is that, in the interest of fairness, equality and doing what is right, we cannot recognize certain tribes and bands simply because they have had the knowledge that we are taking this bill up and have been involved in whatever way in this process over others who have no knowledge of our deliberations and have not had the chance to make their case.

    We must set forth an equitable, inclusive, and standardized criteria and process for recognition, and we must hold all of the tribes and bands that come forward accountable to that standard. It does not appear to be just or reasonable to recognize any tribes before there is criteria in statute for them to meet. This decision will not only level the playing field, but my firm belief is that it will demonstrate to the Indian Arts and Crafts Board and other federal entities that we are standing on solid ground with our recognition process. So, in sum, it is my sense that the House will be seeking to write into law a standard recognition criteria and process and will not recognize any individual tribes or bands at this time.

    I welcome you to share this statement, with knowledge that it is my perspective, with other members of your communities and contingencies. I also encourage suggestions for the criteria and recognition process from all involved. Otherwise, at this time, I respectfully request that you limit the volume of correspondence you send to us and encourage others to do the same. While we have done our best to be open-minded and deliberative throughout, I can say with some confidence that it will not change our course of action on the question of recognizing specific tribes.



    Rep. Kesha Ram
    Clerk, Committee on General, Housing, and Military Affairs
    Vermont House of Representatives, Chittenden 3-4: Burlington “

  • November 30, -0001 at 12:00 am

    Prominent? Prominent to whom? She opposes recognition of the Vermont tribes because her and others like her want federal recognition in the States. Naturally, land claims and a casino will follow. If Vermont doesn’t recognize its home tribes, they will be losing some land and property tax revenue. Prominent.. like Al Capone.

  • November 30, -0001 at 12:00 am

    Wouldn’t a simple DNA test on a person claiming to be an Abenaki prove or disprove their claim?

  • November 30, -0001 at 12:00 am

    As an Abenaki living in VT, I merely want recognition, so my family and I will stop being harassed by self-proclaimed “real Indians”. Most Abenaki I know aren’t interested in making money off their recognition, we just want to keep the old ways alive. To me, this isn’t about casinos, or selling baskets or even college scholarships. I’m proud to be Abenaki and I’m sick of getting shit from my own people just because a few bad apples are in it for the wrong reasons.


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