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Abenaki peoples speak at the United Nations about Indigenous identity fraud in Vermont

People stand outside with their backs to the camera, wearing purple shirts. They face a red billboard that says "Stop Indigenous Identity Fraud"
Elodie Reed
Vermont Public
For what they say only cost $500, the Abenaki Councils of Odanak and W8linak bought a billboard in Times Square for one minute of every hour on Tuesday, April 16.

At exactly 7:02 p.m. Tuesday, above the heads of tourists, performers and costumed superhero imitators, a digital billboard in Times Square flashed maroon for sixty seconds.

It read: “Stop identity fraud, Abenaki of Odanak and W8linak sole guardians of Abenaki identity.”

The message, which Abenaki Council of Odanak Chief Rick O'Bomsawin says cost $500, showed up for one minute every hour all day on Tuesday.

It was the same message that the Abenaki Councils of Odanak and Wôlinak and the Assembly of First Nations Quebec-Labrador delivered Wednesday to the United Nations Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues.

There, two youth Abenaki representatives spoke during a side event titled: "Identity Fraud and Indigenous Self-Determination: Abenaki Youth Perspectives."

"Kwaï, nd’aliwizi Sigwanis Lachapelle, nd’aln8baïskwa ta polibii, n’wigi Odanak, nisinska taba ngwed8s n’kassigadma," is how Sigwanis Lachapelle introduced herself in Abenaki. "Hello, hi, my name is Sigwanis Lachapelle, it means 'little spring' in the Abenaki language. I’m Abenaki, and I’m also Bolivian. I live in Odanak, I’m 26 years old."

"Kwaï, nd’aliwizi Isaak Lachapelle-Gill, nd’aln8ba/ aln8ba nia, n’wigi Odanak, nisinska taba iaw n’kassigadma," said Isaak Lachapee-Gill in Abenaki. "Hello everyone, my name is Isaak Lachapelle-Gill, I’m an Abenaki from Odanak, I’m 24 years old."

Lachapelle and Lachappelle-Gill are cousins who say they want to defend the identity and rights of the W8banaki Nation — which is made up of Odanak and Wôlinak First Nations.

"Identity fraud threatens the integrity of our cultures and traditions, distorting our age-old heritage," Lachappelle-Gill said. "While culture is naturally dynamic, the death of identity is not cultural. It is the result of a settler culture intent on destroying Indigenous peoples."

A person walks through a marble-floor hallway, past a sign that says "Abenaki Heritage"
Elodie Reed
Vermont Public
Isaak Lachapelle-Gill walks into a conference room at the United Nations on Wednesday, April 17, where he presented on behalf of the W8banaki Nation, which is made up of Odanak and Wôlinak First Nations.

"We are aware that because of government laws and policies, many of our people lost their status or family ties and now aspire to reconnect with their culture and community," said Lachapelle. "We welcome their efforts to reconnect with us."

But, she added:

"There are more and more people who call themselves Abenaki on the sole pretext of family lore or distant ancestor from over 300 years ago. However, there is a fundamental distinction between having an Indigenous ancestor and belonging to an Indigenous nation."

The Abenaki youth said these things specifically in response to Vermont, which has recognized four groups as Abenaki tribes — groups that the W8banaki Nation denounces and says are “unrelated to the real Abenaki.” The state-recognized tribes dispute that claim.

"How can the W8banaki Nation claim self determination, autonomy and self-government when our fundamental rights are constantly being trampled underfoot by individuals and groups pretending to be us?" Lachapelle-Gill asked.

Following their speech, the Abenaki delegation heard from a roomful of people belonging to Indigenous nations across the world who say they are seeing the same thing: Innu, Manitoba Métis Federation, Sami, Brokenhead Ojibway and more.

"In Quebec, we've had for the past 30 years name of nations that were coming from somebody's dream — nations that we never heard of," said Ghislain Picard, who is the Chief of the Assembly of First Nations Quebec-Labrador and is also Innu from the community of Pessamit.

"Beginning in the 60s, we finally started as Métis getting a few programs and services... then all of a sudden, you had these people coming forward, who we know are white people, saying they’re Métis to get an advantage," said Ambassador Clément Chartier of the Manitoba Métis Federation and the National Government of the Red River Métis.

"We have some parallel issues, for example, now a burning issue with Finland … they accepted about 70 non-Sami people to be registered into the role of the Finnish Sámi parliament," said Ánde Somby, who is the chair of the Sami and Indigenous Peoples Law research group at the Arctic University of Norway.

And a person who identified themselves as Taylor from Brokenhead Ojibway Nation said: "I just wanted to just say chi-miigwech and thank you for sharing this, because it's, it's ignited a fire inside of me."

“I mean I knew that all nations had this issue, but I think — it’s that elephant in the room, you know, that nobody really want to talk about it," said Rick O'Bomsawin, the Abenaki Council of Odanak chief. But by bringing this topic up, he added, "I think it really opened the door for other people to say, 'You know what, no, we got to talk about this issue.'"

He noted that under the current UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, there’s broad language about the right to self-determination. But O’Bomsawin told those at the UN event that it should be clearer who has that right — namely, historically continuous Indigenous nations.

"We need to be brought to the table as a nation," he said. "Because whether they like it or not, to each individual nation, we are a country within ourselves. And they need to view us that way."

Whereas in Vermont, the state recognition process limited the participation of the two Abenaki First Nations, whose governments are headquartered in Quebec. That’s because parts of the process only allowed Vermont residents to give input.

And while O’Bomsawin said he’s continued to ask to discuss this with Gov. Phil Scott, he has had no luck.

"You have to understand what's happened to our nation in Vermont is — not only has he created a new nation, he's erased mine," O'Bomsawin said.

Six people sit at tables with microphones. Five people look at someone on the left speaking.
Elodie Reed
Vermont Public
Abenaki Council of Odanak Chief Rick O'Bomsawin, left, says the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples currently has broad language about the right to Indigenous self-determination. But he says it should be clearer who has that right – namely, historically continuous Indigenous Nations.

In a written statement, Gov. Scott said he felt this issue was settled, and that he was seeking no changes to the status of Vermont’s state-recognized tribes or the process that led to their recognition.

The governor also said that "any potential changes would need to be made legislatively, so Odanak could make their case to legislators."

The Abenaki Alliance, which represents Vermont’s four state-recognized tribes, did not immediately return a request for comment.

Rich Holschuh, who is the chair of Vermont’s Commission on Native American Affairs and a member of the Elnu state-recognized tribe, said in an email that the statements made by W8banaki Nation representatives were hard to hear.

Holschuh, wrote in part: “Abenaki communities and individuals, in common with all other beings, have been affected by a multitude of lived experiences in as many places. We look for open dialogue and respectful learning with all of those to whom we are related (which is Creation as a whole), whether distantly or more closely, and recognize that, while there may be differences in our respective journeys, the future of our children will depend on how we conduct ourselves.”

He also praised the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, calling it “broadly inclusive rather than exclusive.”

Back at UN headquarters, both youth Abenaki speakers — Isaak Lachapelle-Gill and Sigwanis Lachapelle — said they were feeling hopeful for the future following their event. Even if they were nervous before it began.

Three people sit in a row behind microphones, looking out to the left. In focus, a woman wearing glasses sits on the end.
Elodie Reed
Vermont Public
Sigwanis Lachapelle is one of the two Abenaki youth speakers to present on the topic of identity fraud during a side event at this year's United Nations Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues.

"At the end I just thought, like, let it out with passion, because — let the passion speak for yourself, for your nation. And we want to get the message out there," Lachapelle-Gill said.

"It's a global issue for everyone," Lachapelle said. "I hope people enjoyed our presentation."

Both said they are proud to be defending W8banaki Nation — and to do so among so many Indigenous peoples.

Have questions, comments or tips? Send us a message.

Corrected: April 24, 2024 at 3:15 PM EDT
A previous version of this story incorrectly identified who purchased a billboard in Times Square. The Abenaki Councils of Odanak and W8linak bought the billboard.
Updated: April 18, 2024 at 5:14 PM EDT
This web story now has quotes originally included in the audio version of the story from Ghislain Picard, Clément Chartier, Ánde Somby and Taylor from Brokenhead Ojibway Nation.
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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