On February 26, 2020

Abenaki tribe supports Statehouse eugenics apology

By John Walters/VTDigger

Members of the Abenaki Nation delivered moving testimony Wednesday morning, Feb. 19, on the lasting impact of forced sterilizations carried out as a result of Vermont’s Eugenics Survey. The House Committee on General, Housing and Military Affairs is considering J.R.H.7, which would deliver an official apology to those affected by Vermont’s sterilization program, which was enacted by the Legislature in 1931.

“The state has never apologized for anything on this level, to our knowledge,” said committee chair Rep. Tom Stevens, D-Waterbury, who emphasized the seriousness of the endeavor. “This is not just a resolution honoring a basketball team.”

Don Stevens, chief of the Nulhegan Band of the Coosuk-Abenaki Nation, said that eugenics is not just something that happened long ago and far away. “The Eugenics Survey affected my family,” Stevens said. “My grandmother died in 1994. She was listed in survey paperwork as ‘a cripple.’ She changed her name three times to avoid the survey.”

The Abenaki leader also displayed a 1927 state publication on eugenics that bore a swastika on the cover — a stark reminder of the political ramifications of the movement.

Lucy Neel, an artist and Abenaki educator, said the shame and fear still hangs over her family today. “My grandfather and I talked about our heritage, but a lot of my siblings wouldn’t,” she said. “I wish I had more traditions I could pass on to my kids.” Neel referenced a family recipe for fish stew that’s lost forever. “My goal now is fish stew,” she said.

The Sterilization Act of 1931 resulted in the sterilizations of at least 253 Vermonters, according to the University of Vermont.

The last known sterilization took place in 1957.

The Abenaki were not formally recognized until the year 2011.

In the telling of witnesses, the eugenics movement was an attempted erasure — by social, political, linguistic and medical means — of groups deemed undesirable.

“We deserve to be who we are,” said Don Stevens. “We want to never be eliminated ever again.”

Rep. Stevens said J.R.H.7 has the support of House leadership and should be approved by the chamber in time for the Senate to act on it. But he emphasized that the resolution is only a first step.

“Following an apology, we know that actions are necessary,” Stevens said.

A likely future step: A Truth and Reconciliation Commission to explore the effect of eugenics on targeted populations including native Vermonters, people of color and those with disabilities.

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