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As a NH group plans an Abenaki cultural center, First Nation leaders have questions

Members of Odanak and W8linak First Nations face a billboard they sponsored in Times Square in New York City during a United Nations Conference on Indigenous Identity Fraud. They wear red shirts and the billboard reads: "STOP Indigenous Identity Fraud! Abenaki of Odanak and W8linak, sole guardians of Abenaki Identity."
Elodie Reed
Vermont Public
Members of Odanak and W8linak First Nations face a billboard they sponsored in Times Square in New York City during a United Nations Conference on Indigenous Identity Fraud.

A New Hampshire nonprofit is working to open a new center in Claremont focused on the culture and history of the Abenaki people.

While many Claremont residents have welcomed the idea as a way to increase knowledge of the state's Indigenous peoples, the project is also raising questions about the authenticity of that knowledge.

The nonprofit brands itself as an Abenaki tribe: the Ko’asek Traditional Band of Sovereign Abenaki Nation. But it isn’t recognized by the Abenaki First Nations in Canada, and has no demonstrable ties to the Abenaki people.

At a September meeting of the Claremont Zoning Board, Chief Paul Bunnell, leader of the Ko’asek band, presented the group’s plan to break ground on a new center focused on the culture and history of the Abenaki people.

Seated behind a small microphone, Bunnell wore a beaded headdress with a feather dangling down over his shoulder and a leather pouch and necklaces tied around his neck.

Bunnell, who oversees the group’s daily operations from events to finances, described the vision for the cultural center, which would be built on a roughly 10-acre plot of land donated by a local family.

“We plan to label all the trees, the plants that are all Indigenous, whether they're food, poison or medicines, things like that,” Bunnell told the board.

Paul Bunnell testifies at a Claremont Zoning Board meeting in September 2023. He wears a beaded headdress with a feather and several necklaces.
Paul Bunnell testifies at a Claremont Zoning Board meeting in September 2023.

Bunnell said the center would also display Native American artifacts, including arrowheads and a grinding stone, and offer educational programs on Abenaki history, including for school groups.

“So it'll be just not just for the tribe,” Bunnell said. “Our purpose [in] our tribe is to reach out to the community.”

The zoning board asked Bunnell a few questions, and then quickly granted a variance to start work on the cultural center in this residential area.

One question the board did not ask was about the Ko’asek Nation’s ties to either of the Abenaki First Nations.

Leaders of the federally recognized Odanak First Nation, an Abenaki First Nation in Canada, have said for years that several groups claiming Abenaki heritage in New Hampshire and Vermont have no connection to the community.

That includes Bunnell’s group, the Ko’asek, which currently has around 540 members. The group is a registered nonprofit under the name Ko’asek of Turtle Island, and not a state or federally recognized tribe. New Hampshire does not have recognized tribes, although a bill to recognize one has been floated in the state Legislature.

To become a member of the Ko’asek, a person must have at least one Indigenous ancestor in their genealogy – regardless of how many generations ago that ancestor lived or whether that ancestor was Abenaki. Bunnell offers to research prospective members’ genealogies for them. Some members identify as members of other Native American tribes, not Abenaki.

This differs significantly from the enrollment process of federally recognized tribes and First Nations, which is far more rigorous, and requires members to demonstrate they are part of a continuous family line within that group.

Odanak’s Assistant General Director Suzie O’Bomsawin says Bunnell’s group is publicly claiming ancestry to members of her community.

“On their website, they list a bunch of people, the different chiefs. Some of them are actually chiefs from Odanak,” O’Bomsawin said.

She said members of Bunnell’s group are not on any of Odanak’s family trees.

“They are not connected with us at all,” O’Bomsawin said.

 Suzie O'Bomsawin stands outside the Abenaki Government of Odanak building.
Elodie Reed
Vermont Public
Suzie O'Bomsawin is the the assistant general manager at the Abenaki Council of Odanak.

As for Bunnell, he says he discovered his Indigenous ancestry later in life. His explanation is a common one among people in the Northeastern United States who claim Native American ancestry, but are not recognized in turn by the tribes and First Nations they claim to be a part of.

“I started finding out all these things… all this information coming in on my Native American [heritage], which we were never told we even had, because it was a taboo subject in most families because we were driven underground because of persecutions,” Bunnell told NHPR in an interview.

Bunnell shared with NHPR a personal genealogy he had researched himself that claimed ancestry to several Native American communities, including Abenaki. NHPR spoke with Darryl Leroux, associate professor of political studies at the University of Ottawa, who studies Indigenous identity fraud. Leroux found no Abenaki ancestors in Bunnell’s genealogy.

Leaders of Odanak First Nation in Canada and scholars of Indigenous history say Bunnell’s narrative of living in hiding because of persecution is not only historically inaccurate, but also ignores the Abenaki people who lived proudly and publicly through generations as community leaders, business owners, and cultural practitioners.

This is one reason Odanak leaders say they are worried about the traction groups like Bunnell’s have gotten in New Hampshire, and one reason they urge caution to those who would see them as authorities on Abenaki history and culture.

Daniel Nolett, general director of the Council of Abenaki of Odanak, is concerned about the programming Bunnell’s group plans to offer at the cultural center, and whether it will be historically accurate and culturally informed.

“Where do they ever take their references?” Nolett asked. “Because clearly they haven't been able to prove that they are connected to the Abenaki, neither to here, Odanak, nor to Wolinak,” the other federally recognized Abenaki first nation in Canada.

Dr. Kim TallBear, a professor at the University of Alberta and a citizen of the Sisseton-Wahpeton Oyate, has written extensively about Native American identity fraud and race shifting – a term used to describe people who publicly claim Indigenous ancestry without a connection to an Indigenous community.

When it comes to the Ko’asek’s plans to teach about Abenaki culture to school groups at the new center, TallBear says exercising that kind of authority without an authentic connection to the community is dangerous.

“If they are fabricating the history and their genealogy, then you cannot trust that they are not fabricating the history and the culture, quote unquote, that they're teaching those kids,” TallBear said.

However, it appears supporters of the Ko’asek and other groups claiming Abenaki ancestry in New Hampshire are not questioning these groups’ authenticity. For those unfamiliar with how Indigenous identity works, and how it is different from other identities like race or sexuality, asking those questions can be uncomfortable, TallBear says.

General director of the Council of Abenaki of Odanak, Daniel Nolett, second from left, at a United Nations forum on Indigenous Identity Fraud in April 2024. Nolett wears a black suit.
Elodie Reed
Vermont Public
General director of the Council of Abenaki of Odanak, Daniel Nolett, second from right, at a United Nations forum on Indigenous Identity Fraud in April 2024.

The Ko’asek Nation’s biggest donor is a well-known philanthropic group in the state: the New Hampshire Charitable Foundation, which has given $53,500 to the group over the past four years.

NHPR asked the foundation about the decision to support the Ko’asek Nation with the group’s identity being called into question by a federally recognized Abenaki first nation.

The NHCF declined an interview, including questions about how it vetted the Ko’asek. In a statement, a spokesperson said the NHCF’s goal is to “make New Hampshire a more just, sustainable and vibrant community where everyone can thrive. But right now, there are many in our state that face barriers to thriving – especially among communities of color.

“To achieve our purpose, we are committed to advancing equity and racial justice and economic security. That includes supporting hundreds of nonprofits across the state, including organizations like [the Ko’saek] which provides outreach and educational experiences to strengthen the community, supports the local economy and raises awareness about the region's Native American culture.”’

When it comes to leadership in Claremont, Nancy Merrill, who oversees the city’s planning and development department, said the decision to support the cultural center project came down to good intentions.

“If the intention is the same and the purpose is the same, I'm not certain it matters necessarily who's leading the effort,” Merrill said.

TallBear said supporting Indigenous representation can be tempting for communities that want to feel as if they’re being inclusive, but without proper research, she says it can cause more harm than good.

“You have local non-Indigenous communities who are not thinking in terms of tribal sovereignty because they don't have any relations with actual tribes, but they're thinking in terms of equity, diversity and inclusion, and they're going out there trying to grab whatever person playing Indian they can find,” TallBear said. “That's the situation that we're in. It's a real predicament.”

Bunnell’s group has continued meeting regularly to discuss plans for opening the Claremont cultural center. He said they are still seeking additional grant money before it can open.

The New Hampshire Charitable Foundation is an NHPR underwriter. The foundation has no influence over our newsroom’s reporting.

Editor's Note: NHPR acknowledges that our newsroom has not sought to verify claims of Indigenous ancestry in the past, relying on sources to self-identify. We now understand that verifying such claims – especially when it comes to people who claim leadership or speak on behalf of an Indigenous community and are not members of a federally recognized tribal nation – is part of our basic responsibility as journalists. We pledge to continue to take steps to better ensure the accuracy of our coverage of Indigenous communities and issues.

Julia Furukawa is the host of All Things Considered at NHPR. She joined the NHPR team in 2021 as a fellow producing ATC after working as a reporter and editor for The Paris News in Texas and a freelancer for KNKX Public Radio in Seattle.
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