Abenakis argue for recognition
BURLINGTON — A Senate committee tried Wednesday to carve out what effect state recognition of the Abenaki Indians would mean for the tribe and for Vermont.
In a second day of testimony, the Senate Judiciary Committee heard from representatives of the Abenaki, scholars and state officials about a bill that would set up a process under which the Abenaki could be officially recognized by Vermont.
Supporters say state status would make the Abenaki eligible for federal education grants and allow them to label and sell their crafts as Native American.
Critics, including the attorney general's office and the governor, fear state recognition could lead to federal recognition, and possible land claims and bids for casino gambling.
The committee set out to address those fears Wednesday.
"I'm saying to you in no uncertain terms state recognition does not lead to federal recognition," said Jeff Benay, chairman of the Governor's Advisory Commission on Native American Affairs, who stated he was testifying as an individual and not as chairman of the commission.
Benay also told the committee that the Abenakis had a "slim chance" of earning federal recognition because of what he described as the legal vagaries of the process.
But if federal recognition were granted, any casino gambling would have to be approved by the Legislature and governor, he said.
Assistant Attorney General William Griffin said the bill before lawmakers is being used in the petition for federal recognition by the St. Francis/Sokoki Band of Abenaki.
"What it (state recognition) does is that it creates proof that is and will be used in the federal case," he said.
The bill would allow a commission appointed by the governor to grant official recognition to the Abenaki for two purposes: making the tribe eligible for federal education, cultural and housing grants; and allowing it to sell crafts with a label saying they were Indian-made.
"We're just asking for the same rights every other social group has," said Debbie Bezio, a member of the Coos Cowasuck band of the Abenakis in Brownington. "To educate our children, to sell our crafts."
A pervading sense of frustration hung over the two and half hours of testimony.
Committee Chairman Richard Sears, D-Bennington, lamented that the panel did not have enough time or resources at the end of the session to address the bill thoroughly. Sen. John Campbell, D-Windsor, said he was offended at being called a racist for questioning the bill and representatives of the Abenaki were upset about newspaper editorial this week that urged lawmakers to reject the bill because it said the Abenakis did not meet the federal standards for recognition.
"I don't appreciate my ancestry being analyzed and dissected and told I'm not a native American," said Fred Wiseman.
The committee hopes to take more testimony next week.
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