Senate resolution on Abenakis gains support despite governor’s concerns

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(Host) Governor Jim Douglas has concerns that a legislative effort to recognize the Abenaki people in Vermont could pave the way to legalized gambling on Indian land.

VPR’s John Dillon reports.

(Dillon) Recognizing the Abenaki people is a cause long championed by Senator Julius Canns, a Republican from Caledonia County. The 81-year-old Canns is now gravely ill. The majority of his fellow senators have signed on to a resolution that formally recognizes the Abenaki’s role in state history.

The language of the resolution states specifically that it’s not intended to grant land claims or other rights. But Governor Douglas says the legislative action could lead to tribal casinos. He says he’s following the lead of the attorney general’s office, which for years has warned against granting legal recognition to the Abenakis.

(Douglas) “I am concerned. That’s the basis of the attorney general’s historical objection to it, that despite the disclaimers, it might pave the way to something that’s beyond what the sponsors themselves seek. I have to be sure that it doesn’t and that’s why I want to explore it even further.”

(Dillon) Senator Vince Illuzzi, a Republican from Essex and Orleans, says recent court decisions have made it clear that state recognition will not lead to casinos or Indian land claims.

(Illuzzi) “All of that has led to a conclusion that should the Abenaki nation or the Abenaki Indian descendants be recognized in Vermont, people won’t have to worry about their houses being taken, they won’t have to worry about casinos being built, and they won’t have to worry about gambling in Vermont.”

(Dillon) The resolution says there are as many as 1,700 Vermonters with Abenaki heritage. According to Illuzzi, state recognition would help Abenaki market then crafts as Indian-made. They could also qualify for state programs aimed at helping minorities.

(Illuzzi) “You need to obtain either state recognition or federal recognition to be able to essentially call yourselves Indians, and then use that either in some manner to either access funds for education or economic development or to further any other interest of the Indian nation, such as marketing goods and saying they are Abenaki Indian made.”

(Dillon) A Senate resolution does not require the governor’s signature, so it could take effect despite his concerns. Separate legislation introduced this week says the Abenaki would be recognized as a matter of state law. That bill could not become law if the governor objects.

For Vermont Public Radio, I’m John Dillon in Montpelier.

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