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Why Vermont tribes, New Hampshire groups might claim to be Abenaki without ever proving ancestry

A photo made from above a group of people, some in regalia, sitting in a circle and playing one large drum.
Toby Talbot
/
Associated Press File
Members of Vermont state-recognized tribes drum on Friday, April 22, 2011, the day Gov. Peter Shumlin signed bills recognizing two tribes — Elnu Abenaki and Nulhegan Band of the Coosuck Abenaki Nation. The state recognized two more tribes the following year.

The governments of the only two federally-recognized Abenaki First Nations in North America dispute the legitimacy of the tribes recognized by the state of Vermont as Abenaki and related groups in New Hampshire.

This dispute goes back decades.

NHPR recently reviewed records and genealogies for leaders of these New Hampshire groups and one Vermont state-recognized tribe. That review failed to back those leaders’ claims of Abenaki ancestry, and found no connection between them and the Abenaki First Nations based in Quebec.

Darryl Leroux is a French-Canadian scholar who studies white settler identities. He published a paper last month in the American Indian Culture and Research Journal focusing on claims to indigeneity in Vermont and New Hampshire.

NHPR's Julia Furukawa recently spoke with Leroux to discuss his findings. Their conversation below has been edited and condensed for clarity.

Julia Furukawa: Can you set the stage for how your research in this region fits into the broader trend of more people identifying as Native American over the years with a particular explosion in the 60s and 70s?

Darryl Leroux: One of the arguments that's been made — that's not mine, but it's one that I borrow in sociology, so particularly in American sociology — is that what we see from really the 1960s to 70s, is when this movement really kind of starts to take hold. So in the sort of throes of the Civil Rights movement, particularly the ways in which African Americans and Native Americans, right, the Red Power Movement, kind of push back at the historical and contemporary forms of racism and racial violence that are present in the United States, there's a way in which sociologists have explained that white Americans start turning to new identities to sort of almost minoritized themselves, to create these new minority identities for themselves.

White Americans whose ancestors in the late 1800s — who obviously were oppressed where they lived, were often coming as refugees with very little in their possession — they'll sort of take that experience to sort of suggest that they really aren't to blame for the ways in which racism are sort of occurring in the 20th century.

And one of the things that happens at the same time, is that other white Americans who can trace their ancestry back, or their origins to the United States back even further, they start sort of expressing these forms of family lore, that really sort of capitalize on this idea of the sort of, quote-unquote “Cherokee princess” or in some cases, the quote-unquote “Indian princess.”

A photo of a white man in blue glasses in a suit and shirt, with the ocean and blue sky in the background
Courtesy
Darryl Leroux recently published a paper titled "State Recognition and the Dangers of Race Shifting" in the American Indian Culture and Research Journal.

For instance, one of the sociologists who I cite, Matthew Snipp, he demonstrates that in the 1980 census, there are 5.2 million Americans who are claiming some, again, form of Indigenous ancestry, but are claiming that they're white, under race. And then other sociologists look at that group of people and try to do an analysis of their socioeconomic lives. And so that includes their income, any potential wealth that they may have, are they homeowners, what languages do they speak at home, and etc. And that group of people who are turning to some — again — ambiguous form of Indigenous ancestry, still claiming to be white, are almost entirely — they mirror the white mainstream, the white middle class mainstream.

And they are very different than those who historically have identified themselves in the census as Native American, and continue to, people who also live on reservations and who speak the language and etc, etc.

Darryl, as part of your paper, you spent some time talking about thestate recognition process for tribes in Vermontand some elsewhere. Can you give us some context about how that compares to the federal recognition process?

The federal recognition process by the Bureau of Indian Affairs was adopted in the late 70s. And it's a very rigorous and much-critiqued process. If you were to apply as a tribe to be recognized, you can expect that would take a well over two decades. And so there's this way in which states have really started to turn to state recognition.

And, you know, sometimes, as I explain in the article, there are a number of people who are working in Native American, Indigenous studies, who do argue that it's because the federal government has been slow to recognize certain tribes — and has unjustly not recognized certain tribes. The state recognition processes are quite different, generally lack rigor.

In your paper, you describe looking at Vermont's state-recognized tribes’ application for recognition.

Yes.

Can you share what those applications illustrate about the rigor of the state recognition process there?

Yeah. So I actually have copies of the four groups and their submission to the sort of state recognition process. As part of the process, there are three external reviewers who are meant to read through the application. I could definitely demonstrate that six of the seven had worked for one of the tribes before that was under consideration. And so right away to me that raises a problem with conflict of interest.

So one of the chairs of the Commission [on] Native American Affairs in Vermont, who oversaw the first sort of two applications for state recognition in 2011, he was a member of one of the tribes that was under consideration, first of all, and he was the chair of the commission that oversaw the process. Really what has happened is the state of Vermont has set up a situation where members of these groups can pick each other to be on the commission. And of course, they have decided that their own tribes are Native American.

At no time have any one of these so-called tribes ever [had] to demonstrate that they were the descendants of actual Abenaki people, which to me is pretty incredible. That's one of the main criteria in the federal acknowledgement process — is that at the very least, you have to demonstrate that you are descendants of Native Americans.

More from NHPR: Review of genealogies, other records fails to support local leaders’ claims of Abenaki ancestry

Many of these groups, both in Vermont and New Hampshire, share a narrative that there's little evidence about their Abenaki ancestry because they were in hiding. And you mentioned this in your paper. Is there much evidence Abenaki people were sent into hiding on a large scale in this period?

There's ample, ample evidence, documentary evidence that the individuals today claiming to be Abenaki in Vermont, who are members of these tribes, are the descendants of primarily people who came from Quebec in the 1800s. I actually looked at the petition for federal acknowledgement. The first organization that was formed in the state in Swanton in 1974, they filed a petition for federal acknowledgment — is what it's called — in 1982. They then filed an edited version in 1986, and 1995. And so I had all that material, and I looked through it.

And so they identify 15, what they call Abenaki families, again, to about the mid-1800s. And if you actually follow those individuals back in time, in terms of historical documents, then you recognize really quickly that they're actually French Canadian from Quebec, and that they're part of this movement of Quebecois people who are immigrating to Vermont, in the 1820s and 30s.

"Really what has happened is the state of Vermont has set up a situation where members of these groups can pick each other to be on the commission. And of course, they have decided that their own tribes are Native American. At no time have any one of these so-called tribes ever [had] to demonstrate that they were the descendants of actual Abenaki people, which to me is pretty incredible."
Darryl Leroux, French-Canadian scholar studying white settler identities

So the main sort of organization in Vermont, which is based in Swanton, is relying really on the historical presence of an Abenaki community in what is now more or less Swanton. So just kind of next to it, it was called Missisquoi village. And it was the sort of last major village that the Abenaki sort of lived in in Vermont, prior to essentially escaping once the war against the British war against the Americans sort of wrapped up. And so by about 1800, that village had no more Abenaki people because they had moved further north into Quebec, at present-day Odanak.

And so that doesn't mean that the Abenaki people didn't return to their territory. And that's one thing in the article that I am at pains to really say. It's not that the Abenaki disappeared from New England. It's that they had to change the sort of relationship with the land and the people there, given sort of imperial alliances that were being made at the time.

And so after a generation or two — and this isanthropologist Christopher Roy, who writes this in his PhD thesis — as he explains really quite well, how the Abenaki did return to key sites in New Hampshire, in Vermont, and also in parts of New York state near the Adirondacks. So Orleans County, for instance, in Vermont, still has a fairly sizable Abenaki population, which is tied to the community at Odanak. And that's really important. They're not quote-unquote, “Canadian Indians” as they're often imagined in the United States. There are people who have that border crossing their territory.

Darryl, these groups have gained a lot of traction in New Hampshire and Vermont. Why is that?

I suggest that it has to do with the way in which Vermonters sees themselves — Vermonters see themselves as particularly progressive. And so if one sees themselves as particularly progressive, then it becomes a progressive move to recognize Native Americans who hadn't been recognized prior, right?

And so there's a way in which it could assuage certain forms of guilt, collective guilt, historical guilt. It may be useful for political leaders to have Native American leaders, and — or individuals present at certain types of events, who they never would have had before. You know, you can imagine that that's something that could be useful also for academics.

I've had a few academics contact me relatively upset with some of my work and my claims. And they happen to be academics who have set up Indigenous Studies programs with these quote-unquote “tribes.” And so their careers, and the work that they do in community, or they imagine themselves doing community, is really dependent on not just the existence of these tribes, but on their legitimacy.

More from Vermont Public: Amid legitimacy dispute, Odanak Abenaki chief invites Vt. state-recognized tribes to visit

Darryl, once the legitimacy of groups like these is questioned, what in your opinion, is the responsibility of leaders like politicians or institutional leaders who have platformed them?

Well, I mean, I think they need to go back to square one. And, you know, if they don't want to take my word for it, I'm an academic, you know, they might want to have their own independent assessment, but they need to actually do the proper research, which the state of Vermont did,they released a report which was a response to the main tribe’s, the main organization’s petition for federal acknowledgement, which was actually very well-researched. The State of Vermont can very easily go back to the report that it commissioned, its own attorney general wrote, that does a really good job of explaining what I just explained, that the individuals who are making these claims today who are members of these groups are not — they have not demonstrated in any way or shape, that they are the descendants of actual Abenaki people.

They may believe that they are, you know, they may fundamentally believe that that's who they are. But that cannot be the sole sort of way in which we evaluate these claims, because we know just like we talked at the beginning of this interview, that there are millions of Americans who think that they're Native American who simply aren't.

NHPR conducted this interview in collaboration with Vermont Public. Following our interview with Leroux, we reached out to the group representing Vermont’s state-recognized tribes, called the Abenaki Alliance, for a response.

In a statement, the Abenaki Alliance said, in part: "It is impossible to address all of the inaccuracies in Darryl’s article in one brief statement. However, what is most important to take away here is that his agenda is to delegitimize the Abenaki tribes recognized by the state of Vermont to benefit his own interests and those of Canadian tribes, who have a stated intention for political and financial gain in the U.S."

The Abenaki Alliance's full statementcan be found here.

The two Abenaki First Nations — Odanak and Wôlinak — also released a statement in response to Leroux's article, which can be found here.

Have questions, comments or tips? Send a message:

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Julia Furukawa is the host of All Things Considered at NHPR. She joined the NHPR team in 2021 as a fellow producing ATC after working as a reporter and editor for The Paris News in Texas and a freelancer for KNKX Public Radio in Seattle.
Elodie is a reporter and producer for Vermont Public. She previously worked as a multimedia journalist at the Concord Monitor, the St. Albans Messenger and the Monadnock Ledger-Transcript, and she's freelanced for The Atlantic, the Christian Science Monitor, the Berkshire Eagle and the Bennington Banner. In 2019, she earned her MFA in creative nonfiction writing from Southern New Hampshire University.

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