Abenaki criticize Dean’s civil rights record

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(Zind) Former Vermont Governor Howard Dean could have opposition from an unexpected quarter in Vermont in his bid for the Democratic presidential nomination.

VPR’s Steve Zind reports.

(Zind) The head of Vermont’s Abenaki Indians says she’s been getting in touch with other tribal leaders to tell them that Howard Dean isn’t sympathetic to Native American issues.

(April Rushlow) “We are definitely putting the word out to Native American tribes all over the United States about Governor Dean.”

(Zind) April Rushlow says it rankles her when Dean campaigns on a strong civil rights record. The former governor often cites Vermont’s landmark civil unions law as an example of his concern form civil rights.

(Rushlow) “I feel angry, upset that he can run around the country and say that he’s done civil rights for all Vermonters when he hasn’t. I don’t have my civil rights as a Native person in this state.”

(Zind) Rushlow says at issue is the tribe’s recognition by the federal government. Dean, like previous Vermont governors, did not support the Abenaki effort to become officially recognized. Recognition gives a tribe the ability to operate almost as a sovereign government.

David Rocchio was a legal counsel for Dean when he was governor. Rocchio says the Vermont Attorney General’s office, not the governor, determined that the Abenaki did not meet the criteria for recognition. Rocchio says Dean was attentive to Abenaki concerns.

(Rocchio) “As Vermonters of Abenaki descent, the governor took very seriously giving them the resources they needed to make their community as strong as possible. We did all we could within the confines of not challenging the Attorney General’s determination that they don’t meet the federal requirements for tribal recognition.”

(Zind) It remains to be seen if even a concerted anti-Dean campaign by Abenakis could fire with other tribes and then have an impact presidential politics. Nationally, Native Americans comprise only 1% of the population, although in some Western states, the American Indian population is much higher.

Jason McCarty of the National Congress of American Indians in Washington D.C., says Native Americans have been an acknowledged factor in some U.S. Senate races and voter participation is increasing. He says in the past, presidential candidates rarely address Native American concerns.

(McCarty) “That’s something that we’re hoping this new power, this new voting power, will help us address.”

(Zind) McCarty says his group hopes to hear from Dean and the other presidential candidates when it holds its national convention this fall.

For Vermont Public Radio, I’m Steve Zind.

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