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Chief Don Stevens & the Nulhegan Abenaki

words Lesley Snyder // photo Craig Thomas

WE KNOW WHO WE ARE

It has been a long, long fight, and Chief Don Stevens’ poignant words encapsulate the pride and passion of his Nulhegan Abenaki tribe. Only in his third year of office, Stevens has made a historical dent in his bucket list, acquiring state recognition for the Nulhegan and their first communal land in 200 years – 68 acres in the Northeast Kingdom. The devotion to his homeland extends past the Nulhegan’s acreage; Stevens is a U.S. Army Veteran from a multi- generation military family. Efforts as tribe liaison have gained the Abenaki a vital source of income, as state recognition allows the Nulhegan to label and price their artistry as Native American-made. Stevens is devoted to compiling and documenting Nulhegan history, not only educating the next Abenaki generation but enlightening the outside world.

“Without education,” Stevens reminds, “there is only ignorance left in its place.”

How do you muster the courage and resilience to confront Vermont legislators?

“Our ancestors and elders deserved no less than a complete effort from their leaders. We are on the brink of extinction, so we have to do what we can to preserve ourselves for the well- being of our children … Confronting legislators is a losing strategy … The old strategy of bulling your needs and protesting does not work. When you are a minority block of people and do not have a lot of voting power, you need to work within the system and not against the grain. You need to show yourself as being united for a common cause so others will become vested with your cause. We found that there are a lot of great legislators in the State House that really did care about the Abenaki people and wanted to correct a wrong that had been done to us for so many years. Without that support, we would not be where we are today.”

What does it mean to be a “steward of the land” as a Native American, and how does it compare with Vermont’s efforts for sustainability and self- sufficiency?

“I personally feel that we have the same goals. Native people are connected to the earth, and many Vermonters are as well. We believe that no one can own the earth but only be good stewards of it while we are alive. This is an area that the State of Vermont and the Abenaki people can find common ground and be able to help each other … We are starting this process by working with Vermont organizations to grow ancient Abenaki seeds … and provide nutrition to those who seek natural foods that are native to this land.”

How do you preserve your culture while thriving in the 21st century?

“That is the million-dollar question. We constantly try to find ways for our children to get involved. Many families who can be citizens of the tribe chose to just be Americans. It is always much easier to blend in and go with the norm than it is to stick out in a crowd, especially around friends. It was never popular to be Indian for our ancestors and is still an issue today … The people who actively participate walk in both worlds. I will always be an American, but I will also always be Abenaki…”

Life as a Native American

“Native Americans are the only race of people who have to carry a card in their wallet and prove who they are … If you are Native American and declare that you are an Indian, you have to prove who you are to the Euro-American government. You must be judged before you are protected against federal prosecution or afforded any protections under the law … If you somehow fall short of recognition, your identity and self-determination comes into question with the outside world … This is why we fight for what we believe in and why the struggle is so important to Native people …

“Culture is something to be cherished, no matter your ethnic background, so please teach your children and grandchildren to be proud of who they are.”