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Vermont Commission on Native American Affairs to ask UVM to hold event with speakers from state-recognized tribes

A photo of people sitting around a semi-circle of tables in a conference room.
Elodie Reed
Vermont Public
Rich Holschuh, right, was voted in as the new chair of the Vermont Commission on Native American Affairs on Wednesday. He drafted a letter that the VCNAA plans to send to UVM in response to an event there this past spring by representatives of the Quebec-based Odanak First Nation. The VCNAA is asking that UVM provides a similar event for speakers from state-recognized tribes.

The Vermont Commission on Native American Affairs agreed through consensus on Wednesday to ask the University of Vermont to hold a symposium featuring speakers from state-recognized tribes.

This is in response to a previous event held at UVM, where several representatives from the Quebec-based Odanak First Nation questioned the ancestry of some members of those tribes.

More from Vermont Public: Odanak First Nation denounces Vt. state-recognized tribes as 'Pretendian'

A draft of a letter from the VCNAA to UVM characterizes the presentation as "a deliberate platforming of a campaign of political invective, sponsored by select faculty using the assets and reputation of the State’s leading educational institution to defame local indigenous communities, who are just beginning to find a public way forward after centuries of official denial and public ignorance …”

The letter also mentions Vermont Public’s coverage of the UVM event. It says the story “Sadly … spread the showcased unilateral slander to thousands … of listeners.”

It goes on to ask UVM to consider “the effects of this deeply divisive situation and of how it was allowed to proceed under official auspices.”

Those effects, the letter says, include “the few Indigenous students at the University are now fearful for their own safety on campus.”

More from Vermont Public: Members, allies of Vermont state-recognized tribes reject 'Pretendian' claims

Commissioner Rich Holschuh, who began his term this week, wrote the letter draft and already sent a version of it to UVM on behalf of the Elnu tribe. He says he received an initial response from the UVM Board of Trustees that they would take the letter under advisement.

A couple other commission members, who sent letters over the summer on behalf of the Koasek tribe and the Missisquoi Abenaki Parent Advisory Committee, said they had received no response from the university.

Deborah Reger, another new commissioner, suggested that the VCNAA version of Holschuh’s letter to UVM include a way to move forward.

“Something that would allow our opinions and feelings to be expressed to the public in a similar kind of venue even,” Reger said.

The commission approved this suggestion and plans to send the letter to the UVM president, board of trustees and provost.

New commission chair

The VCNAA also elected a new leader on Wednesday. The majority of commissioners voted for Holschuh as chair. He returns after previously serving on the commission until 2020.

During the discussion before the vote, fellow Commissioner Beverly Little Thunder asked whether Holschuh qualified under the commission's operating guidelines. They say the chair should be of Indigenous heritage.

Little Thunder recalled a previous meeting with Holschuh.

“And you were directly asked if you were Indigenous, and you said that you were not Indigenous,” Little Thunder said.

Holschuh specified: “I do solemnly affirm that I am of Indigenous heritage, it is not within three generations. And those are my exact words at that time."

His term runs until the last day of February in 2024.

Odanak First Nation requests meeting with Gov. Scott

In the meantime, Odanak First Nation has asked Gov. Phil Scott for a meeting.

According to a lettersigned by the tribe’s Chief Rick O’Bomsawin, Odanak First Nation would like to brief the governor “on the issue of recognition of the W8banakiak, the Abenaki Nation.”

This letter also notes that Vermont is part of the Abenaki Nation’s territory, and that “the Abenaki of Odanak have never surrender[ed] their rights and title on our unceded territory, the Ndakina, and never accepted that boundaries made up by foreign nations could have an impact on our territory.”

A representative of Odanak First Nation passed along this letter, asking the governor to speak “in the spirit of Nation-to-Nation relations,” while Scott visited Montreal last week.

More from Brave Little State: Odanak First Nation's Mali Obomsawin tells Indigenous stories through music

During his weekly press briefing Tuesday, Scott said he's committed to finding a time to set up a meeting with Chief Rick O’Bomsawin.

“Like I say to most people in Vermont, I'm willing to listen,” the governor said. He noted that he would like to have state lawmakers present at any meeting with Odanak First Nation.

“This is something — this, this was legislative action,” he said. “It was taken when I was in the Senate, on two separate occasions.”

But in response to claims from some Odanak representatives that the tribes Vermont has recognized through the legislative process are self-identifying as Indigenous, the governor said he didn’t have any reason to doubt the Vermont communities' veracity.

“We’ve had a great relationship with the Vermont Abenakis for decades, and will continue to consult with them,” Scott said.

He added that he felt it was important to have lines of communication open with communities indigenous to Vermont, and to help in “any way we possibly can.”

According to the Odanak Abenaki tribal council’s office, a Sept. 9 message to the governor’s office was returned the afternoon of Wednesday, Sept. 14.

In the reply, which was shared with Vermont Public, a Scott administration official said the request for a meeting has been submitted "for review and to determine the Governor's availability."

The official also noted that "the Governor has many existing commitments, this process can take some time."

Have questions, comments or tips? Send digital producer and reporter Elodie Reed a message:


Updated: September 15, 2022 at 10:02 AM EDT
This story has been updated with newer information about the communications between Gov. Phil Scott's office and Odanak First Nation.
Elodie is a reporter and producer for Vermont Public. She previously worked as a multimedia journalist at the Concord Monitor, the St. Albans Messenger and the Monadnock Ledger-Transcript, and she's freelanced for The Atlantic, the Christian Science Monitor, the Berkshire Eagle and the Bennington Banner. In 2019, she earned her MFA in creative nonfiction writing from Southern New Hampshire University.
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