Saturday, September 30, 2023

"Is Joseph Bruchac truly Abenaki?"

On September 30, 2023 the Times Union (a newspaper in New York), published a commentary titled "Is Joseph Bruchac truly Abenaki?" 

It is the latest in many items about him and the groups in Vermont who claim to be Abenaki. This is the first one I know of in which he was asked directly. His answer, "Am I not a black belt because I wasn't born as one?" is deeply troubling. He is suggesting that anyone can be Native. That is not true!

In March of 2022, I attended (virtually) the Unsettling Genealogies Conference organized by Professor Gordon Henry (enrolled citizen of the White Earth Anishinaabe Nation in Minnesota), and hosted by Michigan State University. The online conference addressed race-shifting, pretendians, and other ways in which people appropriate a Native identity. You can view the presentations here.

Jacques Watso (Councillor, Odanak) spoke about groups in Vermont that claim to be Abenaki. One of them is the group that Joseph Bruchac claims. Watso's remarks begin at the 57 minute mark in this video. 

I found Mr. Watso's remarks compelling. In February of 2021 I had begun compiling a list of reading materials and videos about claims to Native identity. I added the conference to that list and continue to add to it. 

Some quick background: I grew up on Nambé Pueblo's reservation. Throughout elementary and junior high school, I knew kids from other pueblos. In high school when I started visiting colleges, I met people from other tribal nations. During undergraduate years at the University of New Mexico, I met even more people, primarily from Oklahoma. Their ways were different from ours but nothing about them made me doubt who they said they were. 

That sense of doubt changed when I went to Illinois in the 1990s, to work on my PhD. I started to meet people who said they were Native, but in some cases, what they said about who they are seemed off. That was my initial feeling about Joseph Bruchac but some people in Native circles worked with him, so I pushed those feelings aside. Since then I've gone through several painful episodes of having trusted someone's claim to Native identity, only to learn they are not. 

Prior to the Unsettling Genealogies conference, I had studied other writings about the groups in Vermont. Through Mr. Watso's presentation, I learned of an event that was scheduled to take place at the University of Vermont on April 29 from 8-11:00 AM ET, titled "Beyond Borders: Unheard Abenaki Voices from the Odanak First Nation." I registered and attended that event. Vermont Public Radio subsequently did a segment about it. I strongly encourage you to listen to/read it: Odanak First Nation denounces Vt. state-recognized Abenaki tribes as 'Pretendian.'

Based on what I've learned over the last several years, I no longer feel confident saying that Joseph Bruchac, his sister Marge, or his sons are Native. All of them have written books for children. For decades--teachers have used Bruchac's books believing he is Native. In the past--believing he is Native--I have recommended his books.

I can no longer recommend books by Joseph Bruchac, his sister Marge Bruchac, or his sons. 

I will be revisiting AICL pages on which I've written about them or their books or articles, and I plan to insert a link to this post and a brief note about my decision. 

For convenience I am pasting the items from the Native or Not resource here. I recommend you read them. I'm updating the list as I can. 

Reports, Statements and Articles about the four groups in 
Vermont that claim to be Abenaki, 
including the "Nulhegan Abenaki Tribe" that 
Joseph Bruchac, Margaret Bruchac, and James Bruchac claim:]
[Last update: Oct 20, 2023]

Odanak Band Resolution, September 29, 2003 stating the Conseil de Bande d'Odanak "does not recognize at this time any organizations claiming to be Abenaki First Nations in the United States or Canada, with the exceptions of our brothers and sisters at Wolinak and Penobscot. Signed by Chief Gilles O'Bomsawin, and four Conseiller's. [Added on Oct 8, 2023].

Final Determination against Federal Acknowledgement of the St. Francis/Sokoki Band of Abenakis of Vermont published in the Federal Register on July 2, 2007. Below is the summary; I encourage you to read the entire document. 

The summary:
Pursuant to 25 CFR 83.10(l)(2), notice is hereby given that the Department of the Interior (Department) declines to acknowledge the group known as the St. Francis/Sokoki Band of Abenakis of Vermont (SSA), P.O. Box 276, Swanton, Vermont 05488, c/o Ms. April Merrill, as an Indian tribe within the meaning of Federal law. This notice is based on a determination that the petitioner does not satisfy four of the seven mandatory criteria for acknowledgment, specifically 83.7(a), 83.7(b), 83.7(c), and 83.7(e), as defined in 25 CFR part 83. Consequently, the SSA petitioner does not meet the requirements for a government-to-government relationship with the United States.

Odanak First Nation denounces VT-state recognized Abenaki tribes as 'Pretendian' by Elodie Reed, Mitch Wertlieb, and Karen Anderson at Vermont Public Radio on May 5, 2022 is good summary of "Beyond Borders: Unheard Abenaki Voices from the Odanak First Nation" [Added on May 11, 2022]

Beyond Borders: Unheard Abenaki Voices from the Odanak First Nation - full video (approximately 4 hours) of event posted to Youtube on May 12, 2022 includes Opening Songs, Welcomes, "The Past" panel, "The Present" panel, Closing Comments, and an Honor Song. [Added on May 12, 2022]

Letter from Rick O'Bomsawin, Chief of the Abenaki Council of Odanak, to Phil Scott, Governor of Vermont, requesting a meeting to discuss Vermont recognition of groups that Vermont recognizes as being nations. Letter is dated September 6, 2022. [Added on October 3, 2022]

Odanak First Nation's Mali Obomsawin tells Indigenous stories through music by David Hess at Vermont Public Radio includes conversation with Obomsawin about groups in Vermont that claim to be Native. Broadcast is dated September 8, 2022. [Added on October 3, 2022]

Abenaki Nation in Quebec says tribes bearing its names in Vermont should not be recognized by Tom Fennario at APTN National News on September 12, 2022. [Added on October 3, 2022]

Declaration: The Abenakis are the sole guardians of their language, culture, and tradition at Abenaki Heritage. [Added to resource list on May 31, 2023] 

Amid legitimacy dispute, Odanak Abenaki chief invited Vt. state-recognized tribes to visit by Elodie Reed and David Littlefield of Vermont Public Radio on March 10, 2023. [Added to resource list on May 31, 2023] 

As VT Truth & Reconciliation Commission begins, Odanak chief repeats request for inclusion by Elodie Reed of Vermont Public Radio on April 14, 2023. [Added to resource list on May 31, 2023]  

Controversy surrounding the Abenaki identity of four groups in Vermont by David Savoy of Radio-Canada on April 30, 2023. [Added to resource list on May 31, 2023] 

Odanak First Nation requests Burlington museum remove photo of ancestors from exhibit, by Elodie Reed of Vermont Public Radio on May 20, 2023. [Added to resource list on May 31, 2023] 

Review of genealogies, other records fails to support local leaders' claims of Abenaki ancestry by Julia Furukawa of New Hampshire Public Radio on May 22, 2023. [Added to resource list on May 31, 2023]  
The editorial note accompanying Furukawa's article is compelling:

In reporting this piece, NHPR independently fact-checked claims of Indigenous ancestry using professional genealogies; requested verification from tribal nation records; and asked sources to share what evidence they have to support their claims of Indigenous ancestry. NHPR also consulted with members of the Native American Journalists Association (NAJA) and multiple experts on Indigenous identity, including this NAJA training on “Understanding Indigenous Claims and Connections.”

NHPR acknowledges that our newsroom has not sought to verify claims of Indigenous ancestry before, relying on sources to self-identify. We now understand that verifying such claims – especially when it comes to people who claim leadership or speak on behalf of an Indigenous community and are not members of a federally recognized tribal nation – is part of our basic responsibility as journalists. Going forward, we pledge to take steps to better ensure the accuracy of our coverage of Indigenous communities and issues. 

State Recognition and the Dangers of Race Shifting: The Case of Vermont by Darryl Leroux, published in American Indian Culture and Research Journal Volume 46, Issue 2, on July 14, 2023. [Added to resource list on July 17, 2023]

"Abenaki" Group of Missisquoi: Research Findings Reveal Troubling Irregularities in the State of Vermont's Recognition Process is a press release issued by Abenaki Heritage on July 31, 2023. [Added to resource list on August 19, 2023]

Why Vermont tribes, New Hampshire groups might claim to be Abenaki without even proving ancestry by Julie Furukawa and Elodie Reed at Vermont Public Radio on August 8, 2023. [Added to resource list on August 19, 2023]

Odanak Musician Mali Obomsawin Talks Music, Community and Vermont's 'Pretendian Problem' by Ken Picard at Seven Days on September 27 2023. [Added to resource list on September 30, 2023]

Is Joseph Bruchac truly Abenaki? by Chris Churchill at Times Union on September 30 2023. [Added to resource list on September 30, 2023]

Why are Abenaki Nations challenging legitimacy of Vermont's state-recognized tribes? by Elodie Reed, Josh Crane, and Sabine Poux on October 20, 2023. [Added to resource list on October 20, 2023]


Tara L Tindall said...

This is so astronomical to me because for at least twenty years, I have been a fan and advocate of Bruchac’s books as a Native American Reading Specialist but I have questioned his heritage to myself. To do so seems like David taking on Goliath because of his well established fame. Because of your blog, I have begun truly questioning and investigating various authors of children’s books on American Indian, overcoming my naive trust of someone simply because they were writing on this topic. I am in awe of your courage to address thisI!

Monica Jackson said...

Wow, just really hard to understand how someone could have the gall to make a career and such profit off a false identity. Bruchac should donate all proceeds of his book empire to Indigenous orgs such as the National Native American Boarding School Healing Coalition.

Monica Jackson said...

Monica Jackson, librarian/library manager, enrolled member of Quechan (Kwaatsan) Nation.

Diane Cubit /DeGonzague-Benedict-Denis-Obomsawin-Picard said...

Bravo! Thank you for this! Often as NY off reserve (Odanak) tribal members, our passive and sometimes superstitious beliefs have not allowed us to speak out loud about the questionable facts or behaviors we have witnessed. When some of us have tried, we were told that it was our families who must have misunderstood. Their fame and notoriety is too well padded, by educational institutions, and professional organizations. Even the state of VT self-identified, have grabbed onto a part of that fame, by signing them into their membership.
Alex Haley’s claim to fame was his best selling book, ‘Roots’. The book told a brilliant biopic study about his lineage leading him back to Africa, and to his great grandfather, Kunta Kinte. Haley claimed that the story was “faction”, stories from his family combined with historical records. Except, Historian Henry Louis Gates Jr. was unable to verify this lineage, and later DNA showed it not to be the case at all. Claims were made that the book was plagiarized from another called the ‘African’. Haley eventually settled, but guess who the court records show as the person who gave him that book?
Maybe years ago, no one would question the race or culture of an individual's claims? Even verifying the validity of those family tales took time and fortitude. Yet, the Jesuit missionaries took meticulous notes, and the paper trail has always been available. Today, though, we understand that the use of DNA is not used to quantify tribal enrollment; it certainly should be used if you claim to be related to my family, by using our name, or our signature totem. In my opinion, my conversation goes like this,
“I heard tell, that a cousin of mine said you looked like another cousin, and that your name was anglicized version of Obomsawin, even our family totem an Indian head and a bow could be read as such. My 3rd greatgram was Mathil Obomsawin, that means you and I are related, right?” Can they prove it? DNA can.
Wli Wni!

Peter Langella said...

Thank you. Truly. I'm a Vermont school librarian. Thank you so much for helping us learn.

Ruth E. Quiroa said...

Thank you for taking the time to conduct such careful research into this ongoing problem, and for sharing your process in a way that others can follow. You have always shared your work in a written "think aloud" manner that provides mentoring/scaffolding for your readers. This was a hard one. Thanks. Warmly, Ruth Quiroa