Senate approves recognition for Abenakis

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(Host) The Senate has unanimously approved legislation that gives formal state recognition to the Abenaki people.

The vote marks the first time ever that lawmakers have supported the Abenaki effort to gain legal status in the state.

VPRs Bob Kinzel reports.

(Kinzel) The Abenaki have fought for formal state recognition for more than 30 years. They achieved it for a brief period of time in the mid-1970s when former Governor Tom Salmon signed an executive order, but the order was later rescinded by Governor Richard Snelling.

The bill will allow the Abenaki to apply for federal economic development and education grants and to sell their crafts as Native American products.

Essex-Orleans Senator Vincent Illuzzi is one of the sponsors of the bill.

(Illuzzi) “This bill intends to recognize the Vermont Abenaki people for who they are and stop denying the obvious we should no longer deny their existence.”

(Kinzel) Some senators were concerned that the bill could help the Abenakis win formal federal recognition. The Attorney General’s office argued that this development could lead to land claims and the prospect of casino gambling.

Judiciary chairman Dick Sears says research convinced him this is not the case.

(Sears)”Therefore the Senate Judiciary committee concluded that it is time to provide state recognition to the Abenaki people. That’s basically what the bill is about.”

(Kinzel) Chittenden Senator Jim Leddy said passage of the bill is an effort to overturn three decades of unfair state policies.

(Leddy) ” Silence on our part as a Legislature, however unintentional, I think, has been tantamount to complicity in this injustice. And I think the action taken today, I hope, will in one small way remedy what, I think, has been an historic injustice.”

(Kinzel) Charles Delaney Megeso is an Abenaki who’s been very active at the Statehouse in support of the bill. He thinks the legislation will be good for the Abenakis and all of Vermont.

(Megeso) “This is a positive step forward for everyone. I like to think of the words ‘Ho daynakana,’ which means ‘Hello our homeland.’ But I also must say that it’s also freedom and unity. It encompasses not only Abenakis but the whole spirit of Vermonters.”

(Kinzel) The measure now goes to the House where leaders say they’ll try to vote on the bill before the Legislature adjourns in several weeks.

But the ultimate fate of the legislation is uncertain because Governor Jim Douglas believes it could ultimately lead to land claims and casino gambling. The governor hasn’t said if he’ll veto the bill if it reaches his desk.

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

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