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Chief Don Stevens keeps Abenaki legacy alive, wants to ensure tribal customs and culture endure

MIDDLEBURY — Monday through Friday, Don Stevens ensures the Counseling Service of Addison County’s computers are working in harmony, as the organization’s information technology manager.
The rest of the week, Stevens is responsible for the well being of an entire people, as chief of the Nulhegan Abenaki Tribe.
Stevens, 51, explained his role as a Native American leader during a recent interview with the Addison Independent. It’s a responsibility he takes very seriously, knowing that Abenaki language, customs and culture will only be found in history books if they aren’t passed on to future generations.
“I have an awesome responsibility, along with others, to get that recognition that our people didn’t have, so we can carry on our culture and give opportunities to our children,” Stevens said. “You have to have pride in who you are.”
Stevens can trace his Abenaki roots back to 1787 and Antoine Phillips, a former chief of his tribe.
The Nulhegan Band of the Coosuk Abenaki Nation is based in the Northeast Kingdom. Translated into English, the full tribal name means, “people of the fish traps, in the pines, who see the first light of day.”
Vermont is home to four Abenaki tribes: The Nulhegan, who number around 1,400; a slightly lesser number of the Missisquoi, based in Franklin County; the Elnu, centered in the Jamaica/Putney area; and the Koasek, located in Haverhill, N.H./Newbury, Vt., area. Stevens said the Elnu and Koasek tribes count around 150 members each.
As recently as 12 years ago, the tribes were autonomous and nomadic, Stevens noted. Their respective leadership councils were made up of prominent families, he said. The different families would come together to talk about common resources and priorities.
But that all changed in 2006, when the state officially recognized the Abenaki as a people. The four tribes formed an alliance to help make that happen.
“When we were going for recognition in 2006 with the Legislature, (state officials) came to us and said, ‘Look, we don’t know who is native and who’s not. You either come to us united, or don’t come to us at all,’” Stevens recalled. “They wanted to help us, but they didn’t have time to figure it out.”
At the same time, lawmakers created a Vermont Commission on Native American Affairs, appointed by then-Gov. James Douglas of Middlebury. Stevens served for several years on that panel, charged with recognizing the historic and cultural contributions of Native Americans in Vermont, protecting and strengthening Native American heritage, and addressing that population’s needs in state policy.
Recognition was an important step — but just a first step to what the state’s Native Americans really wanted, according to Stevens: To be granted what Stevens called “legal Indian status.” This would allow the Vermont Abenakis to meet federal guidelines for representing their wares as “Native American-made.” It would also increase the Abenakis’ eligibility for a variety of federal grants for educational and cultural programs.
“We had to have a state or federal government recognize us as an Indian tribe,” Stevens explained. “They hadn’t. They only recognized us as a ‘people’ for minority status purposes only. But that didn’t hold weight with the federal government. You still couldn’t legally sell your stuff as Indian, you couldn’t apply for grants as Indian, because they hadn’t accepted us as a tribe.”
In 2010, Vermont crafted a process through which an Indian tribe could apply for legal recognition. The Nulhegan and Elnu tribes applied in 2011.
It took several months for the tribes to successfully negotiate all the required steps, Stevens recalled. Three independent scholars looked at the tribes’ genealogy and history based on the tribes’ petition. The Commission on Native American Affairs signed off on it. Both the Vermont House and Senate held three public hearings before a vote in both chambers. The state attorney general vetted the new law and then Gov. Peter Shumlin signed it.
In 2012, the Nulhegan and Elnu became the first Native American tribes to be recognized as “Indian” in Vermont, according to Stevens. The Missisquoi and Koasek tribes soon followed.
“For me, that’s the biggest accomplishment,” Stevens said. “If I die tomorrow, I was able to help give recognition to our people, along with land.”
So now, the four Vermont tribes can legally apply for federal grants, sell their wares under the Indian Arts & Crafts Act of 1990, and apply for scholarships, according to Stevens.
“It allows us to act as a sovereign organization within the state of Vermont,” he said. “We still fall under the state of Vermont, but we have a governmental relationship with the state.”
STEVENS ELECTED CHIEF
It was in 2010 that the Nulhegans elected Stevens at their chief, succeeding Luke Willard. The chief serves at the pleasure of a council of 5-13 members, made up of various family members of the tribe, according to Stevens.
DON STEVENS, CHIEF of the Nulhagen Abenaki Tribe, leads his late mother, Margaret, at a tribal celebration. Stevens works at the Counseling Service of Addison County.
“The tribal council makes decisions on how you move forward,” Stevens said. “They elect me to be the spokesperson to do the things I do well — to be the face of the tribe, to work with other people and tribal governments.”
Specifically, Stevens promotes the Nulhegan culture and helps its citizens “in any way.”
He likens his role to that of a town manager:
“You’re responsible for the citizens under your care. You report to the council.”
The Nulhegan Abenaki Tribe has been active under the current council and Stevens. This year has seen holiday celebrations, the Snowsnake (traditional Native American) games, tribal council meetings, a Dartmouth Powwow in Hanover, N.H., and the “Lake Champlain Maritime Museum Abenaki Heritage Celebration and Native Arts Marketplace” held in June.
On Sept. 2 and 3, the tribe will hold its Sixth Annual Abenaki Heritage Gathering at the Mount Norris Scout Reservation in Eden Mills, just north of Johnson. The Abenakis use the event to celebrate their cultural heritage and help the public learn about the tribe’s history and culture through songs, story telling and traditional arts and crafts.
Like other Native American tribes, European settlers displaced the Abenaki from their lands over time. In 2012, the Vermont Land Trust and the Vermont Housing and Conservation Board set aside the 68 acres for the Abenakis off May Farm Road in Barton. The land hosts a hunting camp, a tribal garden and maple sugaring facilities that are administered cooperatively by the Nulhegan.
It is the only tribal forest in Vermont and New Hampshire, according to Stevens. The tribe hosts an average of one function per month on the property, which is open to the public, Stevens said.
Barton property is of critical importance to the Abenaki, according to Stevens. The garden has allowed the tribe to re-establish traditional Native American vegetables and maintain a food shelf. The small sugaring operation allows the tribe to raise money for scholarships for Abenaki children. And having a place to call their own is a major boost to the Abenakis’ collective self-esteem.
“The Creator asked us to be good stewards of the land,” Stevens said.
“It’s home; it’s our roots,” he said of the tribal forest.
Stevens believes the Abenaki are rediscovering their sense of pride in being Native Americans. He explained some folks of Abenaki heritage have found it easier to blend in to mainstream society. Marriages through the years between Native Americans and people of European heritage have made it a fairly seamless transition for those not wanting to acknowledge their Abenaki heritage.
“A lot of people, because of our complexion, it’s been easy for them to blend in as a Euro-American person and not have to be open about it,” Stevens said. “I want to change that from being fearful, to being accepted and proud of who they are. That can be tough, because there’s still a lot of prejudice out there.”
Fortunately, things have changes since his grandmother’s era.
Stevens’ grandmother changed her name twice in order to protect herself from Vermont’s infamous sterilization law of 1931. That law created a sterilization policy for people perceived at the time to have “negative eugenics.” Abenaki women were among those targeted.
“She was born as Lillian May,” Stevens said. “She got married as Pauline. She died as Delia, because she wanted to avoid being sterilized. A lot of people were afraid of being Indian.”
Stevens’ next big goal as chief: Promoting more education about, and for, the Abenaki people.
“We want to make sure our public schools can educate about the Abenaki,” he said. “We have to educate people that there might be someone sitting right next to them who might be Abenaki, and they have no idea.”
Stevens believes the Abenaki have a story worth telling and preserving for generations to come.
“Before my mother passed, which she did a couple of weeks ago, I wanted to show our heritage and our lineage — not only so our parents and grandparents can hold their heads up high for being proud of who they are, but also to give an opportunity to our children to be proud of who they are, so that we don’t go extinct,” Stevens said.
More information about the Abenaki can be found at abenakitribe.com.
Reporter John Flowers is at [email protected].
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