State recognizes Abenaki fishing, hunting rights

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JAMAICA — At the start of the new year, lifetime licenses for hunting and fishing will be available for members of Native American tribes recognized by the state.

"It's definitely a good thing," said Roger Longtoe Sheehan of the Elnu Tribue of the Abenaki. "Anything that helps our people and helps our people forward is good for us. It also shows that the state is recognizing us, that we're here, that we exist. And that, for a long time, was something that the state was not doing."

Earlier this month, Gov. Phil Scott signed H.716. The bill allows "certified citizens" of Vermont's indigenous tribes to get free fishing and hunting licenses.

Sheehan, who lives in Jamaica, said he hasn't hunted in a long time but he'll probably do more fishing now. His father, son, grandson and brothers are all fishermen and hunters.

Many Abenaki communities depend on hunting and fishing to bring food into their homes, said Sheehan. He oftentimes stores meat for his son in his freezer.

"We all share that with the rest of the family and other folks who come to visit," Sheehan said.

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His hope is that the free licenses might bring Abenaki people together more often. He recalled hunting season being "a big thing" in New England for many people, not just Native Americans — they'd take two weeks off from work and head to hunting camps.

"You may not get so many deer or whatever you're hunting for but at least people get together as a group, as tribe or as families," he said. "That's one of the things I hope to see but who knows."

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His tribe also includes members who live in Bellows Falls, Putney and Westminster.

Rich Holschuh of Brattleboro, former member of the Vermont Commission on Native American Affairs, said the bill was primarily spearheaded by Don Stevens, Chief of the Nulhegan Band of the Coosuk-Abenaki Nation and supported by the commission.

"It benefits all of Vermont's recognized tribes," Holschuh said. "This is another in a series of initiatives that have been coming up in the Legislature, you know. It's incremental change as the state begins to grapple and deal with the reality that Abenaki have always been here and what do we do about that now? So there's a recognition of what hasn't been done and what needs to be done. That's a really big conversation but this is a significant aspect of that."

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The Abenaki people have been in Vermont for thousands of years and their rights precede the state's establishment, Holschuh said. The state permanently replaced Columbus Day with Indigenous People's Day last year after observing the latter since 2016.

Holschuh said the Vermont House of Representatives passed a bill that will require signs at state parks to include the Abenaki names of the location in addition to the English words already displayed as signs are replaced due to age, damage or other reasons. The bill stills needs to be considered by the Senate.

Holschuh also anticipates an apology from the state for the effects of the eugenics movement in the earlier part of the century will be coming soon. Last year, the University of Vermont apologized for the "stereotyping, persecution and in some cases state-sponsored sterilization" that resulted from the Vermont Eugenics Survey that ran from 1925 to 1936 and targeted Native Americans, French Canadians, people of color and the poor.

"So now the state Legislature is considering the same measure," Holschuh said, expecting to see a resolution rather than a bill. He estimated another three or four bills concerned with the Abenaki people of Vermont are being explored.

Reach staff writer Chris Mays at cmays@reformer.com and at @CMaysBR on Twitter.


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