Abenaki representatives from the Odanak First Nation – which has over 3,000 members, and is currently based in southern Quebec – recently gave a presentation at the University of Vermont.
Odanak government officials and citizens spoke about their history, and how colonization forced them to assimilate their language and culture – and to move to where they live today.
They spoke about their territory, N’dakinna, and how it transcends the borders of Quebec, Vermont, New Hampshire, Massachusetts and Maine.
And they spoke about Vermont’s state-recognized tribes, addressing an uncomfortable, long-simmering dispute. Odanak First Nation citizens and officials said prominent tribal leaders in Vermont are misrepresenting themselves as Abenaki – and profiting from it – when they are not Indigenous.
Hundreds attended the presentation, both in person and over a livestream. Titled “Beyond Borders: Unheard Abenaki Voices from the Odanak First Nation,” it called attention to a phenomenon known as “Pretendians,” which scholars say is widespread in Canada as well as the U.S., including in Vermont and New Hampshire.
“There has been a rising movement of race-shifting or Pretendians, groups of white people that may have a Native ancestor from long ago, deciding to form communities around this hobby,” said Mali Obomsawin, an Odanak First Nation Abenaki citizen. “It is perpetrated by groups of people, like I’ve mentioned, and also individuals, particularly in academia, where they see an opportunity to further their career, or get social capital or political capital by identifying this way.”
This is harmful, she says: “When other people that aren’t from the community – that don’t have cultural continuity – claim to speak for us, our information and our teachings are diluted and they’re inaccurate … and frankly, it is a form of minstrelsy, Redface and reenactment.”
According to Odanak First Nation Councilor Jacques Watso, the people who are doing this are also profiting. Under federal law, for instance, members of state-recognized tribes like those in Vermont can market arts and crafts as made by Indigenous people.
“They started commercializing our culture and heritage,” Watso said. “And that went through all these traumas … where we were denied access to our own culture.”
Obomsawin says it’s confusing for everyone involved.
“It disrupts the movements and healing that is going on in real Indigenous communities,” she said. “And it disrupts our ability to learn our own culture… They make it harder for actual Indigenous people to reconnect.”
Obomsawin encouraged individuals who have familial relations to the Odanak First Nation to reach out and “rejoin the circle.”
As for those who do not have those documented connections, she was blunt: “There are so many ways to respectfully and appropriately be a part of a Native community without having to become Native yourself.”
Odanak First Nation does not recognize any of Vermont’s Abenaki tribes. Vermont’s tribes are not federally recognized either – despite one Vermont group applying several decades ago. Four of Vermont’s tribes do have state recognition, under a law passed in 2010.
But Watso, the Odanak First Nation councilor, says his members were shut out of the state Legislature’s debate on whether to recognize Abenaki tribes in Vermont. State records show only one Odanak member from Newport was listed to testify back during the 2011 and 2012 legislative hearings on state recognition.
“We were shut out and told to shut up, n’est-ce pas?” Watso said. “Because we’re not from the state of Vermont. It was purely a political decision to go through this process.”
Watso argues that the Vermont Legislature doesn’t have the power to recognize whether a community is Indigenous or not.
“State legislators should go back and do their homework and revoke the whole thing,” he said.
VPR reached out to the state’s four recognized tribes. We received responses from Don Stevens, Chief of the Nulhegan Band of the Coosuk-Abenaki Nation, and Rich Holschuh, a citizen of the Elnu Abenaki Tribe.
Holschuh said he was dismayed that the UVM event only included the perspectives from the Odanak First Nation.
“The problem being that this was a large scale platforming, with a single voice, there was no other voices there and no other perspective,” he said.
Chief Don Stevens said: “When they use an institution, to use their voice to suppress someone else … then it’s not an educational event anymore, it just – it’s used as a way to suppress other people.”
Stevens was one of the people personally called out at the event as someone misrepresenting themselves as Abenaki.
“No other nation, no other tribe, no other people should tell us, or try to approve who we are, that’s what’s called sovereignty,” he said. “We have gone through a process, whether they like it or not, we have gone through the processes needed to to be recognized as an Indian.”
Holschuh was also personally called out.
“It’s not anything new, and it’s not anything that I feel really carries any credence,” he said. “Now we have to find a way to provide a response, or to answer with some – to bring some balance.”
VPR’s Mitch Wertlieb spoke to Councilor Jacques Watso and Mali Obomsawin this week. Their conversation below has been edited and condensed for clarity.
Mitch Wertlieb: Councilor Watso, let me start with you. The Abenaki Council of Odanak issued resolutions first in 2003, again in 2019, indicating it did not recognize groups representing themselves as Abenaki in Vermont. I’m wondering how the timing of this UVM event fits in with that. I mean – why give this presentation now in 2022?
Jacques Watso: It was an event put forth because the four tribes of Vermont were celebrating the 10th-year anniversary of their state recognition. We went to the state Senate in 2011, and we were asked, politely asked to leave, because we were not Vermont electors, and our voice should not be heard.
But we are always outspoken, because these people, they came to Odanak to learn our culture, our language, our stories, our heritage, our way, our dances, our songs. And once we started asking questions about their heritage, as Indigenous people do all across America, they gave us the runaround. And it was – we quickly found out that they were not who they were claiming to be, they were claiming a ancestry from colonial time, from the 1600s. And some had zero connection, but had French Canadian ancestry.
Mitch Wertlieb: Let me turn to Mali Obomsawin now. Mali, what is your response to Chief Don Stevens’ comment about who does and who does not get to determine indigeneity?
Mali Obomsawin: Indigenous nations determine who is part of the community. The line that the people in Vermont are trying to walk is, they’re asserting themselves as sovereign nations, when for hundreds of years, they were just not known as Indigenous. And so in the last 20 to 40 years, they’re coming forward and saying, “We’re sovereign nations, we get to define who we are.”
But even Don Stevens has admitted to the press, right – this is printed – that he didn’t know that he was Abenaki until much later in his life. And so how can you say that you speak for the Abenaki when you had to go to the state of Vermont in order to have any kind of legitimacy?
Mitch Wertlieb: Mali, this is so interesting. And I apologize for sort of playing catch up here, because really, I’m on the outside looking in as many Vermonters will be on this issue. How is this all determined? In other words, you have your own ways as a tribe of determining who is true Abenaki, true Odanak. Have you ever sat down with some of these folks here in Vermont and said, “OK, this is why we believe that we are the true representation here, and why you, in fact, do not have the same links to this heritage that we do.”
Mali Obomsawin: Listen, we have invited the groups in Vermont time and time again to show us how they are related to us, because – and this is an important point – Wabanaki people are related to each other. The tribes in Maine are related. And you can – it’s documented – you can see and trace how we are related at Odanak to the Penobscot or to Passamaquoddy. And we have recent and ancient, you know, kinship with the Mi’kmaq, right, that’s what it means to be Wabanaki, that we are all related. And that’s literal.
It is a red flag that these groups in Vermont, except for a handful of people who are actually descendants of Obomsawins, distant descendants, except for them, they haven’t been able to show us or willing to show us how they’re related to us, for one.
Two, because we’ve requested their genealogies and their proof of their claims and they haven’t given us anything, we have actually had to do their genealogies ourselves. So we know – we haven’t publicized these things, but we know for at least for many of the prominent families, what the genealogies are.
And third, my father as well as several people from Odanak were going back and forth with Missisquoi in the 80s and 70s. And my father had the computer that had all of the genealogies of the people there on it, and so he has also had access to those.
Mitch Wertlieb: Councilor Watso, how should not just the state of Vermont as a government, but as a people, as a culture, how should we be moving forward with this? What would you like to see as a statewide governmental and cultural response to the claims that you’re making here?
Jacques Watso: Well, that’s a big question. But what now, is to go back to all these scholars to say, “You’ve gotta stop. You’re harming the Indigenous voices. You’re taking the space of Indigenous voices within the academic sphere.”
And we’re leaving the door open to say, to acknowledge – that maybe you were misled, a lot of people were misled. Because behind all of these groups, they go get grants. And those grants are paid for by the Vermont taxpayers, and they’re being fraud. It’s a fraud, to receive grants on a false pretense.
Kianna Haskin provided production assistance for this story.