Daughter of the dawnJanuary 11,2003
Abenaki chief April Rushlow aims for state, national recognition
By KEVIN O’CONNOR Staff Writer
In went the lines. Out came the wardens.
The anglers, it seems, didn’t have a license.
Almost 25 years have passed, but April Rushlow still remembers the day her father took her fishing along the Missisquoi River in Swanton on April 22, 1979.
“They wouldn’t give me a ticket because I wasn’t old enough,” recalls Rushlow, then age 10.
Most Vermonters would be happy to be off the hook.
Not this one.
“I tried my damnedest to get one,” she says with a laugh.
Call her Daddy’s little girl. Rushlow, 34, is a wife, mother and, no less devotedly, chief of the state’s largest band of Abenakis, inheriting the title from her late father, the feisty Homer St. Francis.
In the millenniums between prehistoric glaciers and the Pilgrims, the Abenaki — the word means “people of the dawn” — ruled much of Vermont, New Hampshire, Maine, Massachusetts and Quebec, historians agree.
But by the time Rushlow was born in 1968, the best-selling Vermont Atlas and Gazetteer was telling travelers “prior to the coming of the Whiteman, the present state of Vermont was largely an uninhabited no-man’s-land.”
Rushlow grew up watching her father fight for state and federal recognition through protests like the “fish-in” — a lawbreaking reminder how their ancestors foraged the land long before the birth of the state, let alone its licenses.
When St. Francis died two years ago, he left three grown sons. But he had good reason to pass the post of chief to his 5-foot-4-inch daughter.
“I was raised on the frontline,” says Rushlow, her voice as husky as her father’s. “When my brothers were out trapping or fishing, I was the nosy one listening to what was going on. When something happened, I was there.”
Reeling off the state’s most recent governors, she can tell you when Thomas Salmon gave the group state recognition Thanksgiving Day 1976.
When Richard Snelling revoked that upon his inauguration weeks later.
When Madeleine Kunin withheld recognition but approved a state Advisory Commission on Native American Affairs in 1990.
When Howard Dean continued the commission but nothing more.
“Governor Dean would have people believe he didn’t want to give us recognition because he’s afraid of land claims and gambling,” Rushlow says.
Now there’s a new governor, James Douglas. A new shot at recognition. A new round of speculation about what could happen if Abenakis win state and federal acknowledgement.
“People know we have ties to this land and they’re fearful we’re going to take it from them,” Rushlow says.
Will Vermont see casinos? Land claims?
This chief says one’s a sure bet.
Trouble with history
Some 6,000 of Vermont’s 600,000 residents identified themselves as part “American Indian” on the 2000 U.S. Census, with the greatest percentage living in the state’s northwest corner, Franklin County.
Drive into the center of Rushlow’s hometown of Swanton and you see a square of stately buildings reminiscent of a Norman Rockwell painting.
The picture inside her house was traditional, too, but of another brush.
“We grew up living on the land, so we ate things others wouldn’t particularly like to try — muskrat, beaver, raccoon, deer. Some of my friends wouldn’t eat dinner at my house because they didn’t know what they were eating.”
Rushlow, the fourth of five children, didn’t understand the fuss.
“We were taken out as kids to hunt, to fish, to gather berries and nuts. I was born and raised that I was Abenaki and to be proud of it.”
But some at school felt differently. They taunted with slurs and statements: “Dirty Indian.” “Dumb Indian.” “The only good Abenaki is a dead Abenaki.”
Rushlow was even harassed by her fifth-grade history book.
“It said the St. Francis Indians were bloodthirsty savages. I brought the book home and said, ‘Dad, this is what they’re teaching us.’”
He went to the school superintendent, who in turn excused Rushlow and fellow Abenakis from class so they could paper over the passage in every textbook.
“We could chew bubble gum while we did it. At the time we thought it was kind of cool. But today to think about it, that shouldn’t have been my job. I shouldn’t have been taught that stuff to begin with.”
Rushlow had her own history. She learned it from her father at an early age, listening to him at Abenaki meetings around the kitchen table, seeing him off to the state’s and nation’s capitals.
Others, however, just saw St. Francis in the headlines. They knew the burly, blustery man served jail time for breach of peace and assault, only to flout motor vehicle laws upon his release by driving with homemade “CHIEF” license plates.
(The Vermont Legislature, mourning his death in a resolution, said he “sought, albeit without success, to promote its identity through distinctive systems of automotive and fishing licensing.”)
“He looks like a cross between Marlon Brando and George C. Scott,” this newspaper said in 1986, “and when you talk to him, you worry intermittently about his blood pressure while keeping an eye on the exit.”
Rushlow, her light hair and Roseanne swagger shattering dark, delicate stereotypes, knows her maiden name can still raise eyebrows.
“They say, ‘You’ve got to be a troublemaker if you’re one of them.’ Because you’re vocal? Because you stand up for what you believe in? Some people say my father was a rough man. But in order for him to get his view and his point across, he had to be. If it wasn’t for him, we probably wouldn’t be in the history books or on the map again.”
Rough and tumble
St. Francis’ ancestors date back to the legendary chief Grey Lock, who led raids against Vermont’s first permanent English settlement — the southeastern Fort Dummer in what’s now Brattleboro — upon its construction in 1724.
But Rushlow’s father also served in the Army National Guard, Navy, Marines and a handpicked honor guard for Dwight Eisenhower.
“I think the snapping point for him was when he got home from the service,” Rushlow says. “He said, ‘I went and fought for my country, but for what?’ Look what they’ve done in the United States to the native people. Our lands have been stolen. Our burial grounds are being desecrated. This country will send people to war in foreign countries for that. We’ll go over and fight about genocide, but you had genocide happening right here. That’s what drove him to put the Abenaki back on the map.”
Growing up, Rushlow was just as rough and tumble. She repeatedly complained about harassment at school before taking matters into her own hands.
“The principal watched me fistfight with a boy in the parking lot. We got back to school and there was an announcement: ‘Boys play on one side of the playground, girls play on the other.’ Like that was going to solve the problem.”
The fact she hadn’t reached the state license age of 15 didn’t stop her from demonstrating in the first of several fish-ins.
“I went to three or four different game wardens. They’d start writing a ticket and then realize I was underage.”
Rushlow proudly received tickets at her second and third fish-ins, then ran for a seat on the seven-member Abenaki Tribal Council at age 16 — the same year she gave birth to her son — and has served ever since.
“A lot of the people on tribal council were elderly. I wanted to show the youth that we could get in there and get elected and have a voice.”
The state was celebrating its bicentennial in 1991 when her father learned he had lymphoma. He continued to lead until 1996, when he named his daughter acting chief at age 28.
Rushlow received the official title upon her father’s death in 2001. Unsure if she’s the first female chief, she’s nevertheless clear about public reaction.
“Some people didn’t like it because I was a woman. Some people didn’t think I was old enough. And some people think I’m nice compared to my father. They haven’t seen me get aggressive yet. They don’t call me Homeretta for nothing.”
Casinos and land claims
Rushlow has inherited her father’s causes, starting with the drive for state and federal recognition.
“Our children cannot apply for Native American scholarships because they’re not considered Native American without state or federal recognition.”
The same goes for their parents and business projects.
“All of a sudden it’s, ‘You don’t exist so there’s no money for you.’ When we were kids a lot of people used to say, ‘Oh, you’re on welfare, you’re this, you’re that.’ A lot of our people are too proud even to ask for something if they need it. Our people would like to be self-sufficient.”
But recognition scares many. Under U.S. law, tribes that can prove their past and present connections receive not only federal assistance, but also virtual sovereignty and exception from most local and state laws.
Rushlow remembers when Salmon signed his historic executive order granting state recognition, only to have Snelling revoke it weeks later.
“In those 30 some days people were worried we were going to take all the deer, we were going to take all the fish. Now what I’d like to say to them is take a look at what you’ve done: The water’s polluted, and you can’t eat the fish because they’re full of mercury. In our culture, if you’re going to kill something, you use whatever you can use. Where do you think your leather or fur jacket comes from? We use all the parts from the animals we take, whether it’s the bones, the horns, the hooves, the hide. What do they do with it? Trash it. Everything we do goes back to Mother Earth.”
Others fear the prospect of casinos and land claims. Douglas, new to the governor’s office, has voiced support for launching lottery games like Powerball and reopening the state’s sole betting track in Pownal. Will the Abenakis make a game of gambling?
“The law says in order to have gaming you must be recognized by the federal government and gaming has to already exist within the state, so there goes that out the window as far as I’m concerned,” Rushlow says.
Indeed, the Indian Gaming Regulatory Act of 1988 contains such restrictions, although a recent Time magazine cover story noted the law is “so riddled with loopholes, so poorly written, so discriminatory and subject to such conflicting interpretations that 14 years later, armies of high-priced lawyers are still debating the definition of a slot machine.”
Land claims, Rushlow says, are simpler.
“Some of the politicians want me to sign my rights away. I don’t have any yet, how can I sign them away? As for the land claims? Oh, yeah, we’re definitely going to file land claims. When? I don’t know. This is our land. Our land was taken from us. Some was leased and never reverted back. But people won’t be thrown out of their homes like some would lead you to believe. The federal government will buy them out, or if they want to stay there, they most certainly can — they just have to pay their taxes to somebody else. It might be scary. I have a home I’ve paid for. I can see where they’re coming from. But a lot of people don’t understand what our people have been through in Vermont history.”
Down for the count
But Abenakis need recognition before they can file land claims in court. State recognition is as simple or difficult as the governor’s signature. Federal recognition comes from the U.S. Bureau of Indian Affairs, which the Abenakis have petitioned for two decades.
“For the last six years we’ve been the next tribe on the list. When the BIA gets here, there’s no doubt in my mind federal recognition is here. It’s not ‘if,’ it’s ‘when.’ The state doesn’t want to wait until we’re federally recognized to then say, ‘Oh, OK, you’re here,’ because I’m not going to be that nice. I’ve said this to a lot of the politicians that come in and out of this door wanting my vote. There’s no doubt we’ve got the criteria met. We just have to wait for somebody to come and see them.”
But that could take time. The BIA’s Bureau of Acknowledgement and Research has about a dozen employees. In contrast, 220 tribes in 39 states have sent recognition requests totaling up to 100,000 pages each.
Some groups want gambling. Others simply seek outside acknowledgement of what they know inside.
“What angers me is why are we the only race that has to prove who we are?” Rushlow says. “If I said I was Jewish or French or Italian nobody would question it.”
The Census allows people to identify themselves as “American Indian,” and 6,396 Vermonters did so in 2000. But Rushlow says that number deceives.
“A lot of us are married to Abenakis,” she says of herself, “but some of our women are married to non-native people, so when you’re doing the census and your husband’s the head of household, you get counted as a white household. When my son was born, I wanted it on his birth certificate that he was Abenaki, but they wouldn’t put it on there. They said they don’t do race anymore. But they’ll call him a Caucasian?”
To receive recognition, Abenakis have to prove their continuous existence. The state attorney general’s office already has questioned this, noting the U.S. Census of 1900 records only five Indians in Vermont.
Rushlow, in response, says many of her ancestors had reason to hide their heritage. Abenakis lost members in the 17th and 18th centuries to smallpox and wars against European settlers, only to face Ku Klux Klan cross burnings and a state eugenics program in the 1920s and a sterilization law (since struck down) that labeled them undesirable in the 1930s.
“Many members of Abenaki families who were investigated by the Eugenics Survey were also incarcerated in institutions and subsequently sterilized,” Nancy Gallagher writes in her 1999 book, “Breeding Better Vermonters.” “For Vermont Abenakis, eugenics was neither science nor a program of human betterment; it was an agent of their annihilation.”
Rushlow knows firsthand.
“Two of my aunts were sterilized with that movement. They’re deceased now. They have no children to carry on. And for what? Because they were different? If you were being sterilized, would you want to come out and say you were Abenaki? I have elders in the community today that still will not say they’re Abenaki because they’re afraid the government’s going to come do something to them. We hear about the Holocaust and how sick that was, but you never hear about the Native Americans being sterilized before that.”
Abenakis can’t even find peace in passing.
Disturbing a burial site is a felony under state law. But that hasn’t stopped contractors from bulldozing along Monument Road in Swanton and neighboring Highgate, where archaeologists estimate up to 80,000 Abenaki burials took place over the past 10,000 years.
“What really aggravates me was one excavator dug up 30-some bodies and never got charged with a crime, yet I see in the paper there was a kid who took a skull out of a mortuary and was using it for a candleholder and was charged,” Rushlow says. “In our belief system we’re told when these remains are exposed our people get sick and they die. I find it unconscionable that our burials can be desecrated, rained on and blown around and nothing’s done about it.”
Abenakis have gone to court to stop all digging, but so far have to settle for checking a construction site with ground-penetrating radar or sifters.
“I don’t know anybody else in this state who’s ever had to sift for their ancestors,” Rushlow says. “I can tell you I’ve done it. I’m not doing it again. Nor am I letting any child or elder in my community go through that.”
Rushlow remembers when a bulldozer unearthed three skull fragments in the spring of 2000. She called the state, which in turn called experts, who in turn found thousands of bone fragments, arrowheads, nails, bits of wooden coffins and an 1827 penny.
“The state knows this road is highly sensitive. At the beginning of the road there’s a state sign — their sign, mind you — ‘ancient Abenaki village and mission.’ They like to use the word ‘ancient.’ The only thing is we’re not ancient because we’re still here.”
Rushlow went on to watch a neighboring landowner start another cellar hole. This time the state declined to stop the bulldozing, prompting Abenakis to blockade the road, then go to court.
“They weren’t listening, so I guess if that’s the only way to get attention ... But then we look like the bad guy. It ain’t the state not doing their job, it’s ‘Oh, them Abenakis are at it again.’”
Without federal recognition, Abenakis can’t benefit from laws like the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act. Even so, the group is beginning to get help.
The National Trust for Historic Preservation has used its publications to decry the bulldozing.
“It’s one of the most important archaeological sites in the state and clearly sacred,” Deborah Blom, assistant professor of anthropology at the University of Vermont, told the trust last year. “I went into this a scientist and left with a completely different outlook. I couldn’t refer to them as ‘specimens’ because I saw they were someone’s relatives.”
But even solutions bring problems. The state, for example, suggested Abenakis and landowners agree on a digging policy.
“Then we’re told it’s not going to be implemented because the word ‘Abenaki’ was in it,” Rushlow says. “You can be Native American, but you can’t be Abenaki. Then that’s state recognition.”
‘Nothing to hide’
Some might worry about casinos and land claims, but Rushlow sees bigger challenges.
“Keeping our kids in school. Getting them a college education. Making sure we have better health care. Let us create our own jobs. Let us put our people to work.”
Rushlow is one of five people trying to do that at the Abenaki Self-Help Association. Located in the old Swanton bus station, the office helps a population long hampered by poverty with jobs, housing and food.
“Our food shelf is not just for Abenakis, but for all people within Franklin and Grand Isle counties,” Rushlow says.
Even so, some locals see the tribe as separate from the rest of town.
“They call us all kinds of stuff — gypsies, river rats ...”
For Rushlow, politically correct words aren’t so.
“I don’t like to use the word ‘Indian.’ I’m not from India.”
Same with “Native American.”
“We don’t mind ‘Native American,’ but you could be a native American if you were born in America, right?”
That leaves “Abenaki,” a word the state won’t recognize.
Douglas, new to the governor’s office, “has not taken a formal position on Abenaki recognition,” says his press secretary, Jason Gibbs.
Rushlow, for her part, is already skeptical.
“From governor to governor, I’ve heard a lot of bureaucratic promises, and I’m only 34. Now when they come in, I don’t trust them. Put it in writing, then maybe I’ll believe what you’re telling me.”
Rushlow says her role as chief is “a nonpaying full-time job.” So why does she do it?
“April is very much a chip off the old block,” says Jeff Benay, director of Indian education for Franklin County public schools. “The passion that her father felt, that sense of unwavering devotion to a cause is just extraordinary. In this day and age we deal with so many people who are me-first hedonistic. That’s not April at all. She does this not because she’s attracted to the limelight, she’ll do whatever she needs to do to bring heightened awareness to the plight of the Abenaki.”
As for the future? Rushlow has a son. Is he as curious as she was growing up?
“He is and he isn’t. He’s a teenager.”
And so it’s up to Rushlow to continue the cause.
“If we had big money, we’d be in court saying we want to file our land claims. But we don’t have big money.”
And so they claim the land differently. Rushlow still fishes and hunts with a bow, rifle and muzzle-loader. (She carries state licenses her mother-in-law pays for as Christmas gifts.)
“We pray to the creator. There’s only one God, whether you call him the creator, God, whoever. Then we pray for our ancestors, then our elders, then our children. And if you’re in between, you’re at the bottom of the pole.”
Or, in the chief’s case, the foundation.
“What keeps me going is I’m doing this for the seven generations behind me. In our life system, you’re always doing it for the next seven generations and the next seven generations, whoever they are. Massacres, eugenics — they haven’t killed us out yet. A lot of us assimilated, but we have our own belief systems, we have our own culture. I know who I am and where I came from. I can trace my roots all the way back to chief Grey Lock in the 1700s, and then go back further than that.”
You can look for the history. Or you can just listen.
“A lot of our stuff is just oral tradition,” Rushlow says. “There are a lot of stories I’ve heard from a lot of different elders.”
Like her father. He echoes in her hearty laugh.
“I just tell it the way it is — that’s another one of Dad’s traits. You got nothing to hide? You just tell it the way it is.”
[Contact Kevin O’Connor at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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