September 22nd, 2019


Vote for Vermont: Vermont’s Native Americans

“Native people are place-based instead of church-based. They go outside where God exits for them.” They go outside where God exists for them. The Abenaki consider themselves just a strand in the Circle of Creation.” Melody Walker Brook

I had the distinct pleasure of interviewing two members of the Abenaki Tribe: Chief Don Stevens, Nulhegan Abenaki Band and Melody Walker Brook, Chair of the Vermont Commission on Native American Affairs.

There are four major groups within the Abenaki nation: the Nulhegan Abenaki Band, located in the Northeast Kingdom; the Missisquoi Tribe, from the Swanton area; the Koaseck Abenaki Band from Orange County; and the Elnue Abenaki Tribe, from the Jamaica area. They are a resilient people who are part of a living culture. Don explained that they are all tribes under state law but historically there were many family bands. The word Band is used by some tribes to honor those family roots.

The Abenaki won state recognition in 2011 and 2012 after many years of trying. Asked what recognition meant to the Abenaki people, Don said they finally felt validated. Don’s mother was so thrilled with the recognition that she danced for the first time in years. Vermont’s recognition opens up many doors for numerous partnerships as it validated the Abenaki. All of their arts and crafts can now be sold as authentic Indian art. Recognition also gives the Abenaki legitimacy among other tribes throughout the States and Canada.

Following recognition, the tribal leaders formed the Vermont Abenaki Artists’ Association. The Association is currently working with the City of Burlington to have a display at the Airport. Funding is needed to complete the project. The Abenaki are also working with the State to identify a permanent display space.

Melody is currently the Chair of the Vermont’s Commission on Native American Affairs. This Commission is “charged by law to recognize the historic and cultural contributions of Native Americans in Vermont, to protect and strengthen Native American heritage, and to address needs in state policy, programs, and actions.” Unfortunately, the Commission is unfunded so its hard to address some of the tribes’ needs.

For the Abenaki being a “sovereign nation” means they are self-governing and self-sufficient. Each tribal council has the authority to move forward individually but choose to work together through the Abenaki Alliance.

The goal of the Abenaki is to distribute their curriculum to schools so students learn about the Abenaki. Programs under Title VII Indian Education Act exist in some schools but not statewide. Don’s wish is to have The People be proud of who they are and for Vermonters to know and respect the Abenaki year-round and not just at Thanksgiving and the Native American Heritage Month in November. Don and Melody hope that Vermonters will take advantage of the Abenaki Artists’ Association, and the displays and events at the Maritime Museum in Ferrisburgh and Echo Center in Burlington.

The Abenaki consider themselves to be stewards of the land. Don explains that native people are connected to the earth. Don has testified on wind towers and clean water. The Native American Council also weighs in on issues such as the sale of Vermont Yankee which impacts the Elnue Tribe. Melody explained that mountains are part of their creation stories; that some mountains are sacred space for the Abenaki. Windmills defile those spaces. 

Don also serves on Vermont’s Racial Disparity in Criminal and Juvenile Justice System Advisory Panel. Many Abenaki are still subject to racial prejudice. Don did compliment the Department of Public Safety and the work they are doing to address racial disparity.

Don mentioned that Native Americans are the only race of people who have to carry a card in their wallet to prove who they are. Other races just self-declare. They also need the card to prove that their craft is made from a recognized Native American.

There is a strong revitalization movement currently underway. Each tribe is trying in their own way to get people to come back to the Circle of Creation. They rely on the family, particularly the grandparents and social media to help keep everyone interconnected. They also get together through frequent Round-Ups.

Melody and Don agreed that theirs is a living, breathing culture. It’s about core values which are reflected in their stories, which reflect historic spirituality and provide life lessons.

Both Don and Melody ask that Vermonters get to know their rich culture and who they are as a people through friendship, compassion and love.

There is much more information in the video. To see the entire show, go to vote802.com. Any addition comments are welcome and can be expressed on the websites and Facebook pages of VFV and Campaign for Vermont.

Waolowzi (Be Very Well)

Pat McDonald

Co-Host and Co-Producer of VFV

*Vt’s Commission on Native American Affairs

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