Abenaki still see roadblocks on crafts sales 4-15-07

MONTPELIER, Vt. (AP) - Vermont's Abenaki Indians thought they were taking a big step forward when the Legislature passed a law granting Native Americans state recognition last year.

But now a key goal - allowing the tribe's members to sell arts and crafts items with official federal approval - may fall victim to a conflict between state and federal law.

``Many, many native artists are very disappointed,'' said Mark Mitchell, an Abenaki who lives in Barnet and chairs the Vermont Commission on Native American Affairs.

Mitchell and other advocates for the Abenaki maintain that last year's law didn't given the Abenaki specific enough tribal recognition to meet the terms of a 1990 federal law designed to protect the integrity of Native American arts and crafts.

The state law spoke to recognition of individuals as Abenaki or members of other Native American tribes.

But Meredith Stanton, executive director of the federal Indian Arts and Crafts Board, agreed with Mitchell that such individual recognition - as opposed to tribal recognition - does not pass muster under the federal crafts law.

``This individual recognition is not in keeping with what we've dealt with,'' she said. ``The state of Vermont's approach is not typical of how other states recognize tribes.''

Now Vermont's Abenaki are going back to the Legislature to ask for a change in the law that would give the Vermont commission the power to recognize them as a tribe.

Such a provision was taken out of early drafts of last year's legislation for fear it could lead to federal recognition of the Abenaki. Some lawmakers and state officials long have spoken of fears that federal recognition could lead to Indian land claims like those that have happened in other states.

Those involved in last year's legislation said they tried to strike a balance by acknowledging Native Americans' presence in Vermont while still guarding against potential land claims.

``We tried very hard to make it so the commission could take the steps appropriate,'' said Sen. Diane Snelling, RChittenden, the sponsor of last year's legislation. ``This is a very complex issue in terms of law and there's a very human side to it that's very emotional,'' she said.

Despite its shortcomings, Mitchell said last year's law was progress.

``The biggest thing it's done is a more healthy dialogue between the native community and the state,'' he said. ``Your voice is heard a little more today. There is no dispute of whether the Abenaki people exist in Vermont.''