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VPR's coverage of arts and culture in the region.

Chief Don Stevens On How One Abenaki Tribe Is Finding Community, Apart

Chief Don Stevens headshot
Middlebury College, courtesy

The COVID-19 pandemic has disproportionately affected racial and ethnic minority groups around the country, including American Indian populations. So how has the pandemic impacted the Abenaki tribes here in Vermont?

VPR’s Henry Epp spoke with Don Stevens, Chief of the Nulhegan Band of the Coosuck – Abenaki Nation. Their conversation is below and has been edited and condensed for clarity.

Henry Epp: Don Stevens, welcome.

Chief Don Stevens: Oh, thank you. I appreciate it. As we say, Wliwni: Thank you.

Learn more Abenaki words by listening to them spoken on Abenaki Language teacher Jesse Bowman Bruchac’s Youtube channel.

First of all, broadly, how has COVID-19 impacted your tribe, and the Abenaki community at large in these last four months?

Well, I think in a general sense, it's impacted us the same way as it has impacted every person in Vermont. There are citizens who have lost jobs, there are citizens that go to the food lines to pick up food. There's people struggling to pay bills. Overall, we are trying to keep our elders safe from being sick. I think where we differ is our people, from a health standpoint, suffer highly from diabetes, heart disease, because we don't process foods sometimes in the same way as others. So we're more susceptible to the COVID-19 situation. We're trying to make sure that we don't catch the COVID as much as possible, and we try to help those who do or need help, if that answers your question.

What have been the discussions among you and other tribal council members as you're adapting and responding at this time?

Some of the discussions are also around: ‘How do we support the artists?’ Because, since all of the events have been canceled…the events are some of the main income that they receive. And when those events are canceled, then they don't have that income to rely on. So we have to try to help them get past this until things can open again.

More from VPR: Abenaki Tribes Celebrate Art And Culture On Church Street

Some of the other things that we've done specifically is, as you know, our H.716 Hunting and Fishing bill just passed. One of the reasons I was pushing for that was to give our people access to our natural food sources. The other things we're trying to work on is our food sovereignty program, which I partnered with Shelburne Farms, Sterling College, Middlebury College, UVM and also Rooted in Vermont to help grow our crops, so we could distribute those food crops to our citizens in need.

You mentioned the bill that was signed recently by Gov. Scott, which allows all members of the four recognized Abenaki tribes in Vermont to have access to free hunting and fishing licenses. Can you tell me a bit more why that change was important to you?

Chief Don Stevens wearing traditional Abenaki clothing
Credit Don Stevens, courtesy
Chief Don Stevens, at one of the events that COVID-19 has put on hold.

One reason is our ancestors secured, or always retained, their hunting and fishing rights from 1796 in some of our land grants, and also through treaties. We've never given up our rights to hunt and fish in our territories. The state of Vermont just had never honored those rights. That was one focus. But the other focus was, especially with his COVID thing happening, was that for people who are unemployed that, you know, might have to pay for a license, they will not have to decide whether they're buying a meal or paying for a license. And people who are trying to feed their family and might not have a license? We don't want them to be in trouble for doing that as well. So if they have access to a free hunting and fishing license, the state can still manage the herd, can still enforce the license, but we won't have to pay for it.

You mentioned some of the events that can't happen, which are a way that many artists in the Abenaki community make money in the summer. Beyond the economic hit there, how is your tribe staying connected when events that you would normally hold during the summer can't happen?

Yeah. I mean, we stay connected like everybody else, either through social media, like Facebook and we have a website. We are starting to gather, but are being socially distant.

Are you concerned at all about maintaining that that sense of community and connectivity when these opportunities for meeting in person are more limited, as they are for everyone right now?

Well, of course. You're always concerned about staying connected and keeping people interested in the community. But we've always had that problem, whether you had COVID or not. I mean, we don't have a reservation. I mean, we have tribal land that we go to and we meet and gather there, but we don't have a reservation. So the community is dispersed anyway. So we have to make conscious efforts to stay connected. So we do still retain that community feel and be able to teach our culture and our traditions and our language.

More from VPR: 'Kwawaldam?': Middlebury Language Schools To Offer Abenaki Pilot Program

Have questions, comments or tips? Send us a message or get in touch with reporter Henry Epp @TheHenryEpp

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