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Amid legitimacy dispute, Odanak Abenaki chief invites Vt. state-recognized tribes to visit

The chief of Odanak First Nation invited Vermont’s state-recognized tribes to visit the Quebec-based Abenaki community during a meeting of the state's Commission on Native American Affairs on Wednesday, March 8, 2023.

The chief of Odanak First Nation has invited Vermont’s state-recognized tribes to visit the Quebec-based Abenaki community.

Chief Rick O’Bomsawin did so at the Vermont Commission on Native American Affairs (VCNAA) meeting Wednesday.

“I'm giving you guys a formal invitation to come to Odanak to meet with our council," O'Bomsawin said. "And let's discuss.”
VCNAA Chair Rich Holschuh said the body would like to consider the invitation.

This comes in the midst of Odanak First Nation as well as Wôlinak First Nation — another Abenaki community based in Quebec — continuing to assert that Vermont’s state-recognized tribes have not shared the genealogical and historical evidence showing they are Abenaki.

A 2002 report by the state attorney general's office, when one group was applying for federal recognition, came to the same conclusion.

That petition for federal recognition was ultimately rejected. The Bureau of Indian Affairs said “less than 1%” of the individuals cited in the application demonstrated Abenaki ancestry.

A photo of people sitting at a table, with one person gesturing.
David Littlefield
Vermont Public
Odanak First Nation Chief Rick O'Bomsawin invited Vermont's four state-recognized tribes to visit the Abenaki reserve in Quebec during the Vermont Commission on Native American Affairs meeting on Wednesday, March 8.

But those who are part of the four tribes Vermont formally recognized in 2011 and 2012 continue to say they are indeed Abenaki.

The chief of the southern Vermont-based Elnu Abenaki Tribe, Roger Longtoe Sheehan, said on Wednesday that not every Abenaki person fled to Quebec during colonial times, and that’s why their families don’t have a paper trail leading to Odanak or Wôlinak.

"They never got up there and got their names put on the rolls," Longtoe Sheehan said. "That doesn't mean they don't exist.”

More from Vermont Public: UVM officials apologize to Vt. state-recognized tribes while Odanak reps continue to denounce them

Chief O’Bomsawin said while that was possible, paper documentation has been around for a long time, and anyone claiming to be Abenaki should be able to show a familial link to those First Nations.

"When we say to someone and someone says to us, 'We're Abenaki,' and we ask who your ancestors were or who your family was, please, this is not — we're not trying to insult you, OK? This is a question that's asked on every Native reservation across the frickin' United States and Canada," O'Bomsawin said. "We're looking for our true history, who we are, our real being. We want to know, if we have — if we truly have family members here in the United States, we want to bring yous home. We want to welcome our families."

In the past, members of Vermont state-recognized tribes have said that Abenaki people were targets of the Vermont Eugenics Survey, and hid their identities because of it, including on official documents.

The 2002 state's attorney general office report found little evidence for this claim.

At the meeting Wednesday, Nulhegan Band of the Coosuk Abenaki Nation Chief Don Stevens said that he appreciated the face-to-face conversation with O'Bomsawin.

"We have our history, and you have yours as well, and we are all kin," Stevens said. "Where our problem is, is when people try to push us out of our own homeland, too. And when we have people that are calling us names, and not living in a traditional way of just talking like we are, in a peaceful way, but trying to eliminate us to raise themselves."

A photo of a person at a table
David Littlefield
Vermont Public
Vermont Commission on Native American Affairs Chair Rich Holschuh allowed time for Abenaki officials and citizens of Odanak First Nation to speak at the VCNAA's meeting on Wednesday, March 8.

O'Bomsawin attended the VCNAA meeting along with other officials and citizens of Odanak First Nation and one citizen of Wôlinak First Nation.

Several Odanak citizens had requested time on the agenda at this week's meeting. The VCNAA did not formally place them on the agenda, but Holschuh, the chair, did allow O'Bomsawin and other Odanak citizens and officials to ask questions, make statements and converse with fellow meeting attendees.

Commission considers removing Odanak comments from meeting minutes

But it was clear at the meeting that at least some members of the VCNAA don't appreciate hearing Odanak citizens' position on Vermont's state-recognized tribes.

Commissioner Doug Bent asked that the February comments of Isaak Lachapelle-Gill, an Odanak citizen, be removed from that meeting's official record. Lachapelle-Gill had reminded the room of Odanak and Wôlinak's active opposition to Vermont's state-recognized tribes.

“I felt that the Odanak used the Commission to put their agenda, if you will, against the Vermont Abenaki and Indigenous people in Vermont," Bent said. "So as a commissioner, I think we need to stand against this attack, if you will."

The Commission voted to ask state legal counsel whether removing the comments is legal, and to revisit the issue at the next meeting.According to the Secretary of State, Vermont's open meeting law requires the minutes from public meetings to “give a true indication of the business of the meeting" and cover all topics that arise.

At minimum, minutes must include names of the present members of the public body and active participants in the meeting, motions, proposals and resolutions made and results of votes.

More from Vermont Public: Vt. Native American commission official says she's resigning over members' false claims of Indigeneity, misogyny

According to Commission Chair Rich Holschuh, counsel said that the VCNAA amending a draft of meeting minutes "is legally permissible ... but should be undertaken with ample careful consideration."

In the meantime, commissioners also voted Wednesday to switch to a sign-up sheet instead of verbal introductions at the beginning of meetings to avoid another instance like the statement made by Lachapelle-Gill.

"I think it can prevent, you know, grandstanding by guests that come and you know, beyond just introducing yourself," said Commissioner Deb Reger. "So that was my reason for bringing this up."

During the VCNAA meeting Wednesday, O'Bomsawin, Odanak's chief, promised a continued presence in Vermont.

"This is unsurrendered Abenaki territory," O'Bomsawin said. "You will never push us out of this land. We will attend more of these meetings. Your governor has promised us a meeting."

Gov. Phil Scott's spokesperson said Thursday that no meeting has been scheduled with Odanak First Nation. The governor met with the VCNAA on Wednesday after the Commission's monthly meeting.

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


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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