The Abenaki people, like many Native Americans, have been living in America since before European settlers arrived. However, the tribes only received state recognition five years ago, in 2012. The Flynn welcomes the Vermont Abenaki Artists Association (VAAA), giving them a space to share parts of their culture with the public—a performance that would have felt entirely different had it taken place in 2010.
When Chief Roger Longtoe Sheehan of the Elnu Abenaki spoke with Vermont Public Radio (VPR) back in 2016, he talked about the importance of state recognition. “Before we had state recognition, whenever we made something—a pipe, a wampum bracelet, whatever—and we sold it, we had to say that we were of ‘Abenaki descent.’ We couldn’t say that we were Abenaki from such-and-such a tribe. That’s a federal law. You could get hit with a $250,000 fine per item.”
It made it difficult for Abenaki people to share their heritage. They couldn’t label their creations as being made by members of the Abenaki tribes, even though that’s who they are. And even now, they have to carry a native card proving that they’re members of the tribes; however, who they are, their culture, and where they come from is in their blood. It’s their identity, and a card shouldn’t be needed to prove that.
One of the biggest problems, according to the Abenaki, is that the Vermont Agency of Education doesn’t have a mandated curriculum surround the Abenaki people and their culture, so many students go through school and never really learn about their history or existence. The Abenaki are hoping to change that in the coming years.
“If we were going to sum up the state of where things are with the Abenaki right now, I would say change,” Eugene Rich, co-chair of the Missisquoi Abenaki Tribal Council, told VPR. “I think we’re trying to change our public persona.”
According to their website, the VAAA “embodies the history, culture, and art of the Abenaki people. While most of our artists and performers preserve and pass on the traditional art of our ancestors, others create contemporary artistic expressions that are informed by tradition.” Their mission is to promote Vermont’s Indigenous arts/artists while providing a place to share ideas and develop professionally as entrepreneurs.
The VAAA wants the Vermont public to be able to find and engage artists like Chief Don Stevens, of the Nulhegan band of the Coosuk Abenaki; Nulhegan Abenaki Drum, who combine traditional Northeastern music with the sound of the big powwow drumming; and Bryan Blanchette, who began singing at powwows 20 years ago and is currently writing/performing new Abenaki language songs, who will be performing at the Flynn.
The Abenaki have a place of belonging in Vermont, a place that should be recognized and unquestioned by the state’s residents. Not every Native American appears the same, but that doesn’t mean they have to prove their culture. The best way to combat this thinking is by learning, by understanding the Abenaki culture and how it, too, has adapted as the years have gone by.