Legislation

Bill would enshrine Abenaki use of state lands

Jon Bosley of Nulhegan band of Coosuk-Abenaki

by Madeline Waterman, Community News Service

Use of Vermont state lands may be returned to the Abenaki for cultural and religious practices under a proposed bill. 

Though they already have access to public lands just as anyone does, the Abenaki’s activities on that land are still regulated by the state. Since they were stewards of the land long before Europeans colonized the area, the tribe wants the right to use it as they did then — free of restrictions imposed by the state government. 

In order to solidify Abenaki-specific land use rights and officially acknowledge their relationship with the land, legislation must be enacted, said Jon Bosley, a member of the band and tribal council for the Nulhegan Band of the Coosuk-Abenaki. They are one of four Vermont-recognized bands.

“We do have agreements with the state already so that we can harvest and do different things on state land, but this type of legislation secures that,” said Bosley. “Our philosophy is not really one of land ownership. Rather, we’re stewards of the land because the land was here before us and it will be here after.”

Having access to the state’s public lands for hunting, medicinal, agricultural, and cultural practices is important to the Abenaki. The Nulhegan Band uses about 60 acres in Barton. 

Despite the uncertain chances of the bill, H.618, getting passed, any discussion about it is positive, Bosley said. 

“Ongoing conversations and legislation are always good, and necessary. Hopefully, enough people will hear about this bill for it to get somewhere,” Bosley said.

Don Stevens, Chief of the Nulhegan Band, has often called for access to state lands and for the tribes to be considered at the forefront of state affairs. Recently, more legislation has been set in motion due to increased cultural awareness — both at the local and global scales. 

Referring to another bill, H.556, which would exempt Abenaki from land taxes, Bosley said, “As a small group of people without an official revenue source, having to pay taxes on land that’s been returned to us jeopardizes our ability to maintain stewardship. So, looking at it from a moral perspective, that bill is really important.”

John O’Brien, a Democrat representing Windsor and Orange Counties, is the lead sponsor of the land use bill. Since so much work goes into getting legislation passed, this is only the second bill that he’s headed up. However, he feels that this topic must be considered more in Vermont’s legislative bodies. 

“The tribes would ultimately love to have sovereignty over the land, but for now, at least having access to land for agriculture and other tribal needs is a step forward,” O’Brien said. 

Due to the amount of covid-related legislation in circulation, many other bills are often pushed to the background and forgotten about, O’Brien said. It’s been hard to get any non-pandemic related legislation passed, so the future of bill H.618 is uncertain unless it reaches a broader audience. 

“I wanted this bill to see the light of day and get some conversation going. So much of the legislature that gets accomplished is done incrementally; without that conversation, it’s never going to happen,” O’Brien said. 

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10 replies »

  1. Interesting. How is “Abenaki” defined? DNA testing? Family traditions? Tribal membership? And what exactly is tribal membership based on? I’m all for good stewardship and long term care of the natural resources that we are blessed with. I’m wondering if this bill will include a waiver that allows any tribal members to ignore hunting and fishing laws that we all must obey. What, specifically, is the agriculture referred to? Commercial crops? Lots of questions bouncing around after reading this. The baseline question for me is, “what is an Abenaki?” Since this could potentially require significant funding or tax or licensing waivers, it’s a fair question to ask. The statement that this is hopefully the start of an incremental increase of benefits begs an answer to that question. I’d enjoy hearing more.

    • Its a lot like defining “bipoc”. What are the specific qualifications? Seems important as these individuals are given different treatment and privileges under new laws. There must be a quantitative clarification or none of this can hold up in court

  2. I hope the bill effectively covers those indigenous people that were here long before the Abenaki arrived on the scene. The continuum of history is usually left to those last left standing to record the event. The Abenaki ( if there are truly any) may have been only the last before European settlers arrived on the scene. Forgotten are their predecessors who in all likelihood had their lands absconded by the Abenaki. Before we dole out their rights to the Abenaki let’s consider the entire picture. A snapshot of today will not suffice.

    • Very true, “indigenous” is a time-relative term. People who came to North America pre-1750 are “indigenous” relative to Asian migrants.

  3. It would be interesting if some individual members of the Abenaki Nation will cleverly cite skiing and mountain biking as “cultural practices” and engage in cutting many new trails on public land!
    Sure would save a lot of trouble versus seeking permission.

  4. And whose land was it before the Abenaki, and then their predecessors, and then their predecessors… keep going – isn’t the earth the Lord’s creation and what would He have as the people governing the land? How about a people that treat each other as brothers and sisters. respecting people of all colors, and respecting the needs of nature and the land.

  5. Stewardship of the land is a legal precedent by law.
    LOVE it!
    We need more ‘stewards of the land’ instead of land rapers, land polluters and water polluters.
    More of this please… we just shouldn’t have to make a law to protect it.
    THAT is the insane part.

  6. This bill seems incongruous to me.

    Was Abenaki governance ever a thing? Did the Abenaki ever recognize the concept of private property?

    There was an Iroquois Confederacy, in what we now call North America, that was founded in the 1100s AD. And the Iroquois were in a state of perpetual war with the more northern Algonquin tribes (the Wabanaki Confederacy, including the Huron, Erie, Neutral, Lenape, Susquenhannock, Petun, Abenaki, Ojibwa, to name some of them).

    But the Abenaki never had a centralized government. “They came together as a post-contact community after their original tribes were decimated by colonization, disease, and warfare.”

    What seems to be forgotten is that the indigenous tribes had trading relations amongst themselves and with Europeans for centuries prior to the creation of the specific ‘thirteen’ European colonies. And yes, there were conflicts. The problem with indigenous governance came to a head when the various groups got into trade wars that began in earnest in the late 1600s. At that time, the Abenaki (again – a relatively recent organization of various tribes) aligned with the Algonquin and the French, against the Iroquois and the English.

    As is usual in human history, it is always about the money. And the players chose their sides. It’s the way the world has worked from time immemorial. The Greco-Persian wars in the 5th century BC. The Punic Wars between Rome and the Carthaginians. The Roman Galic Wars, the Three Kingdom Wars in China, the European Medieval Wars, the perpetual state of war between the Iroquois and the Algonquin, not to mention the dominance of the Aztecs, Mayans, and the Incas. History is replete with inhumanity.

    So, here we are today, in the Constitutional Republic called the United States, uniquely established in world history to protect individual rights – not tribal rights, not state’s rights, not federal rights, not racially specific rights, not gender specific rights, not faith specific rights, but individual rights.

    And yes, it’s been a struggle getting from there to here. We’ve been through slavery, women’s suffrage, civil rights struggles of all sorts, struggles with trusts and monopolies, not to mention foreign attacks. And still, we can’t seem to bring ourselves to accept personal responsibility for our actions as individuals.

    Milton Friedman said it best.

    “To the free man, the country is the collection of individuals who compose it, not something over and above them. He is proud of a common heritage and loyal to common traditions. But he regards government as a means, an instrumentality, neither a grantor of favors and gifts, nor a master or God to be blindly worshipped and served.

    Indeed, a major source of objection to a free economy is precisely that it… gives people what they want instead of what a particular group thinks they ought to want. Underlying most arguments against the free market is a lack of belief in freedom itself.

    The problem of social organization is how to set up an arrangement under which greed will do the least harm,…

    The great virtue of a free market system is that it does not care what color people are; it does not care what their religion is; it only cares whether they can produce something you want to buy. It is the most effective system we have discovered to enable people who hate one another to deal with one another and help one another.”

    The question the legislature should answer is: To what extent does this bill further our free-market and individual liberties – no matter who we are?

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