Douglas fears Abenaki legislation poses risk

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(Host) The Senate Judiciary Committee has unanimously voted to support legislation granting the Abenaki formal state recognition. Members of the committee say they don’t think the plan will necessarily help the Abenaki in their effort to win federal recognition.

However, Governor, Jim Douglas, thinks the bill poses a risk for the state of Vermont.

VPR’s Bob Kinzel reports:

(Kinzel) When the legislation first came to the Judiciary committee, the chairman of the panel, Bennington senator, Dick Sears, expressed strong concerns about the bill. Sears was worried that the legislation might be a key factor as the Bureau of Indian Affairs reviews the Abenaki application to win formal federal status. He was concerned that the state could face casino gambling and numerous land claims if the federal application was approved.

But after hearing several days of testimony, Sears came to the conclusion that state recognition was long overdue and would have little or no effect on the federal proceedings.

(Sears) “What we’re doing in this bill is recognizing a minority population in Vermont. The Abenaki and I think it’s time for them to be recognized. So I was satisfied with a lot of the report. We may want to look at what impact it might have if federal recognition comes about. But I do not believe it’s going to be a result of state recognition.”

(Kinzel) The Governor remains strongly opposed to the legislation. He’s concerned that passage of the bill will have a significant impact on the federal government’s review of the Abenaki application.

(Douglas) “I really think we ought not to take that risk. I don’t see the advantage in passing a bill at this point I think the Bureau ought to make its decision without any action by our General Assembly.”

(Kinzel) Gaining state recognition will make it possible for the Abenaki to apply for a number of federal economic development and education grants.

But Debbie Bezyo, who’s a member of the Clan of the Hawk, says formal state recognition is a matter of respect for many Abenaki.

(Bezyo) “To be an Indian in this state is being worse than a dog. It’s not a thing to be proud of up until now. And a lot of our people,e our ancestors, have hidden the fact that we were ever a native American, have any blood in us that is native American. But now we can start to be proud again to be who we are. And that’s a big thing.”

(Kinzel) The legislation could be on the Senate floor for debate as early as Friday.

For Vermont Public Radio, I’m Bob Kinzel in Montpelier.

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