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Women on state Native American commission point to sexism, cultural appropriation in Vt. state-recognized tribes

A photo showing people sitting along a long table under a structure that has a roof but no sides. A whiteboard in the background reads welcome to Kunsi Keya Tamakoce.
Elodie Reed
The Vermont Commission on Native American Affairs met on Wednesday. Several female commissioners including Carol Irons, second from right, and Beverly Little Thunder, third from right, spoke up about sexism and cultural appropriation among Vermont's state-recognized tribes.

Earlier this spring, Abenaki citizens of Odanak First Nation in Quebec gave a controversial presentation at the University of Vermont. It included allegations that prominent individuals in Vermont’s state-recognized tribes were self-identifying as Indigenous without evidence to back their claims.

Members of the tribes have since rejected those allegations. But something noticeable has been missing from the public response: the voices of women.

That changed this week.

The Frequencyco-hosts Anna Van Dine and Henry Epp spoke with VPR's Elodie Reed. Their conversation below has been edited and condensed for clarity and accuracy.

Henry Epp: First off, can you give us a little background on this UVM presentation?

Elodie Reed: Sure. It was held at the end of April, and during the event, two Abenaki representatives from Odanak First Nation called out a number of individuals from Vermont’s state-recognized tribes that are pretty prominent here, including in VPR’s and other outlets’ media coverage. 

They repeated what Odanak’s tribal council has said in two resolutions from 2003 and 2019 – that they don’t recognize groups representing themselves as Abenaki in Vermont or New Hampshire, because those groups have not provided what they say is sufficient genealogical and historical evidence of their presence over time. 

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

And so during the presentation, the Odanak representatives said a number of people in Vermont are “race-shifting”  — in other words, non-Indigenous people self-identifying as Abenaki based on family lore or one Native ancestor from hundreds of years ago, rather than continuous participation in the cultural community. And in the process, those people are benefitting from the social and political capital of identifying as Indigenous. 

Some members of Vermont’s state-recognized tribes have rejected these claims. They note that the state officially recognized them in 2011 and 2012 after a lengthy review process. There are critics of that process, including representatives of Odanak First Nation, who say they were excluded from it. 

"People who don't have roots in our culture are exploiting our culture for their own benefit. That's not Abenaki culture, that's a form of white supremacy. And that's been really troubling in the Abenaki community for two or three decades now."
Commissioner Carol Irons

Anna Van Dine: OK. So you’ve been attending recent meetings of the Vermont Commission on Native American Affairs to hear their response to this whole issue. What happened at Wednesday’s meeting?

Elodie Reed: So originally, at the commission’s first meeting after the UVM presentation, commissioners voted to write a letter to the university and to the professor who organized the event. But the commissioners couldn’t agree on what to say in the letter. Some didn’t want to categorically blame or shame UVM or Odanak First Nation for that presentation. 

And it’s important to note that the commission makes decisions through consensus, which commission chair Carol McGranaghan says is a slower process, but is also a traditional Indigenous practice.

"Consensus takes time," McGranaghan said. "That's why it's such a white-world-driven-thing, that everything has to be done 'now.'"

Anna Van Dine: And so during Wednesday’s meeting you also heard some new voices respond to the UVM presentation, notably women.

Elodie Reed: That's right. So far in my reporting, the only people who have wanted to talk about it on the record have all happened to be men.

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

But on Wednesday several female commissioners spoke up, and they actually agreed with some of the points made by the Odanak representatives. 

This is Carol Irons, who says she is an Abenaki elder:

"People who don't have roots in our culture are exploiting our culture for their own benefit," she said. "That's not Abenaki culture, that's a form of white supremacy. And that's been really troubling in the Abenaki community for two or three decades now."

And Carol pointed out that it was challenging for her and other women to speak out about this, because women tend to be tradition holders, and do not confront.  

"Let's face it, the Indigenous people here are being discredited by what those folks are doing, because it's guilt by association," she said. "And we’re all being tarred with the same brush, because we haven’t really had a way, especially a way from our own cultural background, to call it out or put a stop to it."

Someone else who spoke up is Beverly Little Thunder, who identifies as a Lakota elder enrolled in the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe:

"As a woman, there is no non-Indigenous man that can speak for me," she said. "And one of the things that I see has happened here in Vermont, is that the women's voices are silent."

"As a woman, there is no non-Indigenous man that can speak for me. And one of the things that I see has happened here in Vermont, is that the women's voices are silent."
Beverly Little Thunder, Lakota Elder

Henry Epp: So Elodie, after this week's meeting, what happens now?

Elodie Reed: Well, after quite a lengthy discussion at that meeting, the commission agreed to rework a letter to UVM. And the plan is to include as many different perspectives as possible, including those voiced on Wednesday.

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


Corrected: April 14, 2023 at 3:46 PM EDT
When this story was originally published, it portrayed several sources as belonging to various Native American communities. This story has been updated to reflect that Vermont Public didn’t independently confirm those community connections. Vermont Public is using best practices outlined by the Native American Journalists Association.

The story has also been updated to remove references to Vermont state-recognized tribes as Abenaki, a fact currently disputed by two Abenaki First Nations.
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.
Anna worked for Vermont Public from 2019 through 2023 as a reporter and co-host of the daily news podcast, The Frequency.
Henry worked for Vermont Public as a reporter from 2017 to 2023.
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