Abenaki commission has no authority to recognize tribe 4-9-07

MONTPELIER, Vt. (AP) - Abenaki craftspeople are disappointed that a law adopted last year granting their Indian tribe recognition may not be carrying the benefits they were promised.

Jesse Larocque, who weaves black ash baskets from his West Danville home, said he is barred by from marketing his art as native American.

``This is like the government telling a black person that they can sell their art as long as they don't label that it was created by a black person,'' Larocque said. ``I'm Abenaki, but they are telling me that I can't say that when I sell my art.''

One of the benefits that Abenaki members and their supporters said recognition would carry would be the ability to market arts and crafts as being authentic native American products.

But federal law restricts such labeling to tribes that have been officially recognized by the state or federal governments. The attorney general's office believes last year's law does not grant the newly created Vermont Commission on Native American Affairs that authority.

Mark Mitchell, commission chairman, said supporters were hoping they were receiving full recognition and the accompanying benefits through the law. But it turns out that the language of the bill was changed before it passed that prohibits such explicit recognition.

``There is nothing in that bill that allows us to define who an Abenaki is,'' Mitchell said. ``And as a result, Abenaki artisans cannot label their art in that way.''

Mitchell said he has advised Abenaki artists to abide by the attorney general's interpretation, keeping labels from their work, although he said many still are continuing to market their work as authentic native American art.

``It's illegal to do so under federal law, but some are doing it anyway,'' he said.

The federal law was designed to combat fraudulent Native American artwork, especially fake jewelry from the Southwest, said Meredith Stanton, executive director of the U.S. Indian Arts and Crafts Board.

``Essentially, it is a truth in advertising law,'' she said.

Ken Van Way, program assistant for the board, said he agreed that last year's law was ``too narrow in scope.''

``Right now, it is still only the state of Vermont that can recognize Native American tribes,'' he said.

Mitchell said he was drafting an amendment that would give the commission authority to recognize tribes and therefore allow sell and market their art.

``We will go back to the Legislature with this one,'' Mitchell said.