Recognition flaps continue for Abenaki
MONTPELIER, Vt. - An Abenaki master basketmaker who has received grants from one federal agency for his work has been warned by another federal agency to refrain from selling his work as Indian, Native American or Abenaki products until his tribe is recognized by the state of Vermont.
Jesse Larocque, a member of the St. Francis Sokoki Band of Missisquoi Abenaki, received an e-mail Feb. 19 from Indian Arts and Crafts Board Program Support Specialist Ken Van Wey, explaining the labeling requirements of the Indian Arts and Crafts Act and telling Larocque to stop advertising his work as an Abenaki product.
The board, which is part of the Interior Department, administers the act. The act is a truth-in-marketing law designed to prevent the marketing of art and craft products as ''Indian'' made when they are not made by Indians as defined by the IACA, Van Wey wrote. The board found Larocque's work at the St. Francis Sokoki Band of Abenaki Web site.
''While the IACB has been in communication with the state of Vermont regarding the state recognition of Indian Tribes, and understands that the state of Vermont may be recognizing some groups as Tribes in the near future, you should refrain from selling your work as Indian, Native American, or as the product of a particular Indian Tribe until your group is officially recognized as an Indian Tribe by the state of Vermont or the federal government,'' Van Wey wrote, disregarding Interiors' final determination last July declining to recognize the St. Francis Sokoki Band.
Larocque responded the same day.
''Perhaps you may want to level your guns in a different direction,'' Larocque wrote. ''I have been a grant recipient as a master Abenaki basketmaker through the National Endowment for the Arts, an independent federal agency,'' Larocque wrote.
In an additional twist of irony, the St. Francis Sokoki Web site was also funded by federal grant money, a tacit acknowledgement of the tribe's American Indian identity, Larocque said.
Mark Mitchell, chairman of the Vermont Commission on Indian Affairs, has posted Van Wey's e-mail on the commission's Web site at www.vcnaa.com under the heading ''The Feds have arrived,'' a parody of ''The Russians are coming,'' he said. The Web site documents the commission's year-long efforts to convince the state Legislature to clarify a flawed state recognition law - S. 117 - that passed in 2006.
The law created the commission and appeared to give the authority to develop criteria for recognizing tribes and bands for the purpose of protecting the state's indigenous artists under the federal IACA. But when the commission began developing the criteria early last year, state Attorney General William Griffin stepped in and claimed the commission only had authority to recognize individuals, not tribes or bands.
That's when the commission discovered through communication with the federal board that S. 117's language recognizing the state's ''Abenaki people'' fails to meet the IACA requirement that Native artists be from a federally recognized tribe or officially state-recognized tribe.
The commission supports a proposed amendment to S. 117 submitted to the Legislature by state Sen. Vincent Illuzzi that would provide a two-step process in which the commission would recommend recognition of a tribe or band to the Legislature for final approval.
In an interview with Indian Country Today, Larocque said the IACB should uphold the law.
''The spirit of the law is in fact more important than the letter of the law. The law was designed to protect Native artists, not prosecute them,'' Larocque said.
Larocque said he would like to see the amendment to S. 117 given an opportunity to succeed before any further actions are taken.
He said that the IACB has been ''canvassing'' the Abenaki community for information about Native artists, citing further e-mails from Van Wey that are posted online.
''He shouldn't be going on a fishing expedition hunting for people he feels might be breaking the law. That is above and beyond the scope of his jurisdiction. It's tantamount to extralegal activity to persecute and prosecute people that may not have done anything wrong yet,'' Larocque said.
IACB Executive Director Meredith Stanton said the board is not ''on a witch hunt or fishing expedition.'' She said that 95 percent of letters such as the one sent to Larocque are based on complaints the board receives.
''We're obliged to respond to any complaint so long as it's within the scope of the act,'' Stanton told ICT. ''What we like to do is handle these things administratively with various degrees of letters putting people on notice. We spend a lot of time and money trying to educate people about the act - that's our primary focus - but that said, there are still civil and criminal penalties for those not in compliance,'' Stanton said.
At the state's request, Stanton submitted testimony to a recent state senate hearing on the propose amendments to S. 117.
''I think the state has good intentions. I think they want to do the right thing in trying to work through it. We know the situation in Vermont is in flux right now and this lies on the shoulders of the state of Vermont, not on the IAC Board to make the decision of whether or how they officially recognize groups in their state as officially recognized Indian tribes,'' Stanton said.