Vt. governor signs law recognizing tribe

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MONTPELIER, Vt. (AP) – The governor signed a law Wednesday granting recognition to Abenaki Indians, a move long sought by tribal members who celebrated with drumming, song and prayer on the Statehouse steps.

Supporters said the law makes tribal members eligible for college scholarships, grants and the right to sell crafts labeled as Native American. They also said the state’s validation of the existence of the Abenaki and all American Indians in Vermont will help them overcome prejudice .

“It’s really all about the children,” said Jeff Benay, chairman of the Governor’s Advisory Commission on Native American Affairs.

Not only will children have more educational opportunities but they will “not have to fear being ridiculed on the playground. That’s all behind us now,” he said as the crowd of about 150 clapped, cheered and shook traditional rattles.

“It’s a celebration of Vermont’s cultural past, present and future,” Gov. James Douglas told the crowd. Detractors feared state recognition would lead to federal recognition and possibly land claims and gambling casinos in Vermont, but the U.S. Bureau of Indian Affairs recommended against federal recognition in November.

At least 1,700 Vermont residents claim to be descended from Abenaki Indians who populated parts of New England, New York and Canada for hundreds of years before Europeans arrived.

The Abenakis have been some of the least educated and poorest of Vermonters, and “see education as the great equalizer,” Benay said.

In 1976, the tribe also won state recognition, but the ruling was rescinded after the state Supreme Court questioned its constitutionality.

On Wednesday, April St. Francis Merrill, chief of the Abenaki Nation Missisquoi Sokoki band, carried a framed photo of her father, the late Abenaki Chief Homer St. Francis, and Thomas Salmon, who was Vermont’s governor in 1976.

“I was 8 years old,” she said of the photo. “I will be 38 this month and this is a hell of a birthday present.”

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