Campaign 2004: Vermont's dark secret
MONTPELIER, Vt. - Howard Dean's Vermont is hiding a nasty secret.
For more than 30 years, it was a stronghold of the now discredited eugenics movement and state institutions performed hundreds of sterilizations. Abenaki Indian families say they were disproportionately targeted.
Official records show a cumulative total of 259 sterilizations under Vermont law from 1933 to 1968, when the eugenics statute was in effect. Some scholars believe the real total could be double that, since the records probably only cover operations in state institutions. They say that up to one-third of the victims might have been Abenaki, the indigenous people of northern Vermont and New Hampshire and adjacent areas of Quebec and Maine.
"Every family has stories of people who were sterilized," said Frederick Matthew Wiseman, a professor at Johnson State College in Johnson, Vt., and a historian and advocate of the Abenaki people.
This program might be considered a historical curiosity, an artifact of an appallingly widespread movement of the 1920s and '30s. Some 31 states adopted eugenics and sterilization statutes before the rise of Nazi ideology and the Jewish Holocaust made evident to even the meanest capacity their inherent evil.
But it re-emerged as a significant issue in Vermont because of the stubborn opposition of state officials, including Gov. Dean, to the Abenaki quest for federal recognition. The St. Francis/Sokoki Band of the Abenaki Nation of Vermont filed recognition petition number 68 with the BIA in April 1980. It is now close to the top of the list for "active consideration."
As Governor, Dean, now candidate for the Democratic Presidential nomination, rejected appeals for Vermont to issue an official apology for the sterilizations, spurning the example of states like Virginia and North Carolina, which have not only apologized but offered compensation to the victims. According to Nancy Gallagher, the scholar who uncovered the history of the Vermont eugenics program, "Gov. Dean was caught in a power struggle with the Abenakis over recognition."
"He was against it," Gallagher said. "He worked with state Attorney General William Sorrell, who actively tried to repress the petition."
Abenaki leaders, said Gallagher, cite the eugenics program as a reason for gaps in tribal self-identification. "They had to hide their identity because of the fear of sterilization."
Even worse, said Wiseman, Attorney General Sorrell has "mined" the eugenics records for evidence to use against the Abenakis' recognition petition. In December 2002, Sorrell and his Special Assistant Attorney General Eve Jacobs-Carnahan issued a 250-page response to the St. Francis/Sokoki Band petition. As part of their argument, they cited extensive entries from the Vermont Eugenics Survey, observing, "Not a single one identifies an Indian as an Abenaki."
The Attorney General's report has been dismissed with varying expressions of contempt by professional scholars and historians. "It's not history," said Gallagher. "It's a legal brief. I don't understand how lawyers think." But the most vehement criticisms center on what scholars consider an extreme breach of ethics in handling the Eugenics Survey records. Eugenics record historians at the Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory in New York state have adopted guidelines forbidding identification of individuals and even their locales in scholarly works.
Yet Sorrell and Jacobs-Carnahan include personal names and physical descriptions, such as the following quotation from the Survey: "[blank] was part Indian, part French, and part Negro. On his death certificate he is recorded as colored. He was very decidedly Negroid in appearance." Furthermore, the Attorney General's office has made this report widely available. It went through a second printing in January 2003 and is now posted in its entirety on the Attorney General's official Web site.
Chief Assistant Attorney General William Griffin, who supervised preparation of the report, defended the use of the names. "We did not release any identifications that were not in the public record," he told Indian Country Today. He also denied a connection between the Eugenics Survey and the recognition issue.
"It had nothing to do with Native Americans," he said of the Survey. "We went back and looked at it," he said. "It seemed to be targeting French-Canadians, if any particular group."
(Gallagher observed that very little research had been done about the fate of Indian peoples in the state eugenics programs. She said, however, that a primary target seemed to be mixed-race families, including tri-racial populations of black, white and Indian descent.)
Griffin also defended the content of the report. "What surprised me was the lack of a substantive response," he said of its critics. "There is some sniping around the edges, like the question you raised."
Although Sorrell is independently elected, he has long been a friend and political ally of Gov. Dean. (His mother, a Democratic Party activist, is often said to be the person who recruited Dean to run for the state legislature.) He figures prominently in a separate but possibly related, controversy, Dean's refusal to release official papers from his 10 years as governor. The Attorney General's office vetted the Memorandum of Understanding that withholds Dean's papers from public view for ten years and is now defending the agreement in Vermont's Washington County Superior Court against a suit from the Washington, D.C. group Judicial Watch. Dean's discussions about sealing the 146 boxes and 450,000 pages of correspondence and official business, said Judicial Watch, focused on their impact on his presidential campaign.
Some of the more damaging material, to judge from letters which have already leaked and been turned against Dean, very likely involves his decisions on Indian issues, including the call for an apology on the Eugenics Survey.
Dean's papers are now in the hands of the State Archivist, who is also in charge of the Eugenics Survey documents. Some critics of the state use of the eugenics papers also express concern that those documents are less accessible and in more disarray than they were 10 years ago.
"The file on sterilization," said Gallagher, "has gone missing."