Review of genealogies, other records fails to support local leaders’ claims of Abenaki ancestry
Please see the bottom of this story for an editor's note explaining how we reported this story.
On a crisp morning in early January, Rep. Sherry Gould stands outside the State House before her first day in the Legislature. The newly-elected lawmaker from Warner says she’s the first enrolled member of an Abenaki tribe to be elected to the New Hampshire Legislature.
“When we walk inside [the State House], the flags are all up,” Gould says. “There's no flags of any of our tribes. That'll be one of my goals.”
Within a few weeks of starting her first term, Gould filed a resolution to give her tribe — the Nulhegan Band of the Coosuk Abenaki Nation — state recognition in New Hampshire.
Under the language of the resolution, which would have made the Nulhegan Band New Hampshire’s first recognized tribe, the group would become eligible for federal housing funding for tribes and the right to sell arts and crafts as “Indian-made,” among other benefits
Gould’s bill stalled in the House about a month later. But her new public role, and her effort to win official recognition for her tribe, have shined a new light on a longstanding controversy around the question of who has the authority to represent the Abenaki community.
For years, leaders of Odanak First Nation, an Abenaki nation based in Canada with historic ties to Northern New England, have spoken out about the Nulhegan Band and another New Hampshire-based group claiming to represent Indigenous peoples, the Cowasuck Band of the Pennacook Abenaki People. Odanak First Nation asserts many members and leaders of those groups have no Abenaki ancestors.
Odanak is one of two Abenaki First Nations formally recognized by the Canadian government. The tribe’s historic homeland stretches across the Canadian border into New England, with members currently living in New Hampshire and Vermont, though they are not formally recognized by the U.S. government as a tribe.
Leaders at Odanak First Nation say people who claim to represent Abenaki people but who lack any authentic connection to the tribal nation — historical or contemporary — are harming the Abenaki community.
“If this definition of indigeneity that can reach back 400 years and exploit an ancestor that may have been Indigenous . . . if that is going to drive the discourse and representation of Indigenous people, then anyone — many, many people — can claim to be Indigenous,” said Mali Obomsawin, a citizen of Odanak First Nation, who grew up in New Hampshire and now lives in Maine. “And the actual communities who have lived through colonization and all of the traumas of residential school displacement, we get silenced yet again.”
‘It’s family lore’
Asked by NHPR about her family history, Gould provided a copy of her mother’s birth certificate listing her mother’s race as “Native American.” But Gould also said she petitioned the state of New Hampshire to change her mother’s race from “white,” as it was originally recorded, after doing genealogical research into her family.
“Native families are hard to trace, especially the ones that didn't go to a reserve,” Gould said. “And so . . . you're having to peck through records in New England, especially where sometimes it was a concerted effort and other times — whatever, it just was ignorance. The records don't make it clear what the ethnology is.”
Gould said she concluded her family was Abenaki after she found letters and newspaper clippings describing relatives on her mother’s side as living a nomadic “gypsy” lifestyle in the 19th and 20th centuries.
Gould and other members of the Nulhegan Band — including the group’s chief, Don Stevens — claim those descriptions are actually coded language for Abenaki people who went into hiding. They often point to a government-sanctioned eugenics effort in Vermont in the early 20th century as the reason their ancestors hid their identities and why there are no formal records identifying them as Abenaki.
Some scholars and the Vermont Attorney General’s office say there is no evidence Abenaki people were in hiding or were targets of the Eugenics Survey of Vermont. And Odanak First Nation point to numerous photographs, documents and news articles from that era showing Abenaki families living publicly and running businesses in Vermont and New Hampshire.
Canadian scholar Darryl Leroux, who studies false claims of Indigeneity, including among groups in New England, said these types of claims are not uncommon.
“They will often say, ‘Well, you know, our ancestors had to hide and they weren't able to be who they really were because of racism. And they weren't recorded in documents because no one wanted there to be Indigenous people, but we know who we are because we have these stories,’ ” Leroux said. “These are a misuse of oral history and oral tradition. They're weaponizing oral tradition against Indigenous people. What they're talking about isn’t oral tradition — it's family lore.”
Suzie O'Bomsawin, the assistant general manager at the Abenaki Council of Odanak, says the narrative about Abenaki people living in hiding because of the eugenics survey writes unnecessary trauma into their history that didn’t actually happen.
“We never lived in hiding, so this is not something I would like the next generation to read about,” she said. “We never said nobody from those groups went through those traumas. Maybe they went through those traumas, but not because they were Abenaki.”
Quebec-based genealogist Dominique Ritchot provided NHPR with a genealogy of Gould’s family. According to Ritchot, it showed no Abenaki ancestry, although Gould does have two Algonquin ancestors dating back to the 17th century.
In an email, Gould did not comment directly on the genealogy results.
“Being ‘studied’ by people without our consent or participation has a very long and dark history,” she wrote. “[I]t is what it is.”
Genealogies and tracking of lineal descent can be important ways to determine Indigenous ancestry. And while vital records and genealogies can contain errors and misclassifications, Odanak First Nation says it has not seen any proof of Gould’s lineal descent connecting to the Abenaki community.
‘400 years with no breaks’
Leaders of the tribal government at Odanak First Nation have also called out the Nulhegan Band’s chief, Don Stevens, as falsely claiming Abenaki heritage.
Two detailed genealogies of Stevens’ family provided to NHPR show no Abenaki ancestry, including one by Quebec genealogist Ritchot.
Stevens declined an interview with NHPR, but sent a statement asserting he is Abenaki. He pointed to the fact that his group is recognized by the state of Vermont, where he lives. The statement read, in part: “There are no other race or identity groups that are asked to prove they are Black enough, Jewish enough, Latino enough, or transgender enough.”
Stevens continued: “No one has the right to say I am not Abenaki when the law says otherwise. To do so is to ignore the law. . . . We do not impose an expiration date or time limit on being who you are or when you choose to celebrate your identity as a person in a community.”
Stevens’ group does have state recognition in Vermont, where applications are vetted by a commission. Among the requirements is that group members must be able to trace their ancestry “through genealogy or other methods.” That’s a different standard than that required to achieve federal recognition, which stipulates that the petitioning group must have been identified as Native American on a “substantially continuous” basis since 1900, among other requirements.
Stevens followed up by sending NHPR documents, including unsigned letters and pages from manuscripts he says come from the Vermont State Archives, that describe some of his family members from the 19th century as presumed to be “Indian.”
There is no universally accepted definition of indigeneity. But members of the groups in Vermont and New Hampshire — like Sherry Gould and Don Stevens — have a very different definition of indigeneity than members of Odanak First Nation in Canada and most other indigenous communities.
Odanak First Nation’s chief, Rick O'Bomsawin, described this difference during an interview at the tribal government offices at Odanak, Quebec.
“The reason we claim that we are Abenaki is because we can date our families from this community for the last three or four hundred years with no breaks,” O’Bomsawin said. “We know who our grandmother was, our father was, our mother was. So we can actually date our families all the way back. That truly gives us a real connection.”
‘A collective community identity’
Odanak First Nation says leaders of another New Hampshire-based group also do not have the Indigenous identities they claim: Paul and Denise Pouliot.
The married couple has emerged as the most outspoken voices for Abenaki people and Indigenous issues in New Hampshire. The Pouliots are head speakers of the Cowasuck Band of the Pennacook Abenaki People, and they’ve worked with institutions across the state, including the McAuliffe-Shepard Discovery Center and the University of New Hampshire, to call attention to Native American issues. NHPR, and many other media outlets, have often covered them.
The Cowasuck Band is a registered nonprofit — COWASS North America — not a state or federally recognized tribe. The Pouliots say they have been applying for federal recognition for over 20 years, but that application does not appear on the Bureau of Indian Affairs website.
NHPR reviewed detailed professional genealogies for Paul and Denise Pouliot, as well as vital records. None of those documents showed evidence of Abenaki ancestry, although Paul Pouliot shares a 17th century Algonquin ancestor with Gould.
When asked for comment by NHPR, the Pouliots asserted they do have Abenaki ancestry but refused to provide any family names or documentation to verify those claims. They both said they found questions about their ancestry to be an affront.
“Honestly, it's quite offensive," Denise Pouliot said. "I just find this incredibly abusive.”
Leaders at Odanak First Nation say questions about family history are commonly asked of and within Indigenous communities. Native American journalists consulted by NHPR also said news organizations have a responsibility to fact-check claims of Indigenous ancestry, especially when it comes to leaders of groups that have not been through the federal recognition process.
The Odanak First Nation has existed for centuries, and has gone through rigorous vetting by the Canadian government. The Vermont and New Hampshire groups who identify as Abenaki emerged sporadically between the 1970s and 2000s.
Odanak First Nation says these groups are harming them by taking control of the narrative of what it means to be Abenaki, and are also perpetuating falsehoods with their public speaking and demonstrations and taking resources away from what they would call “legitimate” tribes.
“It's frustrating because a lot of people say to us, ‘Don't you have bigger things to deal with, like fighting the colonial governments and fighting, getting your land taken and poverty?’ And it's really upsetting, because we do have these bigger fights to fight. We don't want to be here fighting this,” said Mali Obomsawin. “But these fake people who are stealing our identities are getting in the way of us addressing bigger issues because of all of this confusion, and I want to make that really clear.”
Some of the groups have also used public facing roles identifying as Indigenous to raise money for their organizations. For example, tax documents show the Pouliot’s nonprofit received nearly $36,000 in grants, gifts, and contributions in 2020.
Leroux, the Canadian scholar, said there are many examples of “Pretendians” or “race-shifters” and it is a common phenomenon, especially among white people in North America who descended from Europeans.
“There are stories that emerge, especially in white families, to justify or to, sort of, cleanse ourselves of whatever role we had in past relations that we’re now somewhat uncomfortable with,” he said.
Douglas Buchholz experienced this firsthand. Buchholz grew up believing he was Native American and says he got a membership card to one of the Vermont tribes without having to prove any Indigenous ancestry. Then he found out through research that he was not actually Native American. He says he began to discover that was the case for many of the people in the communities identifying as Abenaki in Vermont and New Hampshire.
“Eventually, I started asking myself, ‘Am I the only one that's experienced these things?’” Buchholz said. “It really perplexed me because you go to powwows . . . and you would start to find out that these people not necessarily had any evidence. . . . No native federally recognized tribe or anybody with common sense would say that these people are Indian.”
Over the years, Buchholz has amassed a trove of documents related to the Vermont and New Hampshire groups in his Lancaster home. He’s looked into the genealogies of the Pouliots, Stevens and Gould, and posted his findings online.
“[Gould’s] a politician down here now, since January. The minute she gets into office, she turns around and tries to get the Nulhegan Group . . . state recognition in New Hampshire,” Buchholz said. “Politicians are being duped.”
Indigenous experts and Odanak First Nation say finding an Indigenous ancestor from your past and connecting with that history within your own family is one thing. But they say it’s different, and harmful, to use it to speak on behalf of an entire group, and benefit from doing so.
“Indigeneity is a collective community identity and not an individual identity,” Mali Obomsawin said during an event at the University of Vermont in April 2022 dedicated to “unheard Abenaki voices” from Odanak First Nation. "That means you cannot claim to be Indigenous if the Indigenous community does not claim you back.”
Additional reporting for this story was provided by Elodie Reed of Vermont Public.
In reporting this piece, NHPR independently fact-checked claims of Indigenous ancestry using professional genealogies; requested verification from tribal nation records; and asked sources to share what evidence they have to support their claims of Indigenous ancestry. NHPR also consulted with members of the Native American Journalists Association (NAJA) and multiple experts on Indigenous identity, including this NAJA training on “Understanding Indigenous Claims and Connections.”
NHPR acknowledges that our newsroom has not sought to verify claims of Indigenous ancestry before, relying on sources to self-identify. We now understand that verifying such claims – especially when it comes to people who claim leadership or speak on behalf of an Indigenous community and are not members of a federally recognized tribal nation – is part of our basic responsibility as journalists. Going forward, we pledge to take steps to better ensure the accuracy of our coverage of Indigenous communities and issues.