Abenaki bill to be reviewed once again in Senate

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(Host) A Senate committee wants to make sure that legislation that grants state recognition to the Abenaki serves its intended purpose.

The bill is designed in part to allow Abenaki to qualify for scholarships and to market their crafts as Native American-made.

VPR’s John Dillon reports:

(Dillon) Don Churchill was in the Statehouse gallery last week when the House voted overwhelmingly to grant state recognition to Abenakis. Churchill is Abenaki. He was born and raised in Swanton, where many of the state’s estimated 1,500 Abenaki live. Churchill says he’s waited more than 30 years for Vermont to officially recognize his people.

(Churchill) “It’s been a long time coming. I’ve been involved since 1971. I seen a lot of changes over the years. We’ve got a Legislature now that listens to us and believes in us.”

(Dillon) Churchill and other Abenaki may have to wait a few days more before the recognition bill finally clears the Legislature. It passed the Senate last year, and went through the House last week. Lawmakers in the House made some minor changes, so the bill will be reviewed again in the Senate.

Senator Vince Illuzzi is the chairman of the Senate Economic Development Committee. He’s a strong supporter of state and federal recognition. And he plans to double check with federal officials to make sure the bill will help the Abenaki get scholarships and market their products.

(Illuzzi) “We’re going to send them the bill and I think we’ll try to get them on speaker phone and get the ok from them. Because at this point, that’s all that’s left, is complying with aspects of existing federal law that enable Native Americans in Vermont to qualify for loans and grants for various activities, as well to sell products and label them as Native American or Abenaki-made.”

(Dillon) Illuzzi credits former Caledonia Senator Julius Canns for getting the Legislature to move on the bill. Canns, who was of Cherokee descent, died last year on his eighty-second birthday.

(Illuzzi) “The Abenaki recognition bill was introduced year after year in the General Assembly. And last year he came to me and said, as literally my last dying wish, I would like you as chair of the committee to at least get this bill to the floor for a vote. And we were able to honor that request. I think as a Native American, he would be proud of our efforts, perhaps disappointed that the federal government hasn’t come around yet.”

(Dillon) The federal Bureau of Indian Affairs ruled last fall in a preliminary decision that the Abenaki do not qualify for federal recognition. The Bureau said the Abenaki haven’t been able to prove that they have existed continuously in Vermont since 1900. The Abenaki have until mid-May to appeal the BIA ruling.

For Vermont Public Radio, I’m John Dillon.

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