Current Problems

Education (6-12)

Abenaki in Quebec take identity fraud concerns to the United Nations

April 24, 2024

Odanak, Wôlinak leadership and youth oppose groups recognized in Vermont 

Indigenous people (Abenaki ) look at poster hanging in front of building reading 'Stop Indigenous Identity Fraud unveiled in  New York during the Self determination and Indigenous Rights at the 23rd session of UNPFII.
A delegation of Abenaki from Odanak, Wôlinak and the Assembly of First Nations Quebec-Labrador unveil a billboard sign in New York last week during the 23rd session of the United Nations Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues. (Marie-Laure Josselin / Radio-Canada)

CBC Indigenous: A digital billboard lit up New York City’s Times Square last week with a message from two Abenaki communities in Quebec: that they are the “sole guardians of Abenaki identity.”

A delegation of the Abenaki Council of Odanak, Wôlinak and the Assembly of First Nations Quebec-Labrador brought the same message to the 23rd session of the United Nations Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues, as part of ongoing efforts to denounce Abenaki groups recognized in the United States.

“Our nation faces a great injustice,” Rick O’Bomsawin, chief of the Abenaki of Odanak, told the United Nations floor last week.

“Who has the right to say who your people are? My nation is strong. We know who our people are but yet we have no voice because of this border that was created.” 

Rick O’Bomsawin holds a strand of wampum beads.
Rick O’Bomsawin, chief of the Abenaki of Odanak, spoke at a side panel held as part of the United Nations Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues. (Marie-Laure Josselin/Radio-Canada)

Since 2011 and 2012, the state of Vermont has legally recognized four groups as Abenaki tribes. O’Bomsawin and his say many of the groups’ members have no Indigenous ancestry and as a result, “exploit” and “unjustly represent” the nation.

“We went to the United Nations for the purpose of making this issue known worldwide,” said Sigwanis Lachapelle.

Lachapelle, 26, and her cousin Isaak Lachapelle-Gill, 24, were a part of the delegation and spoke at a side event called  “Identity fraud and Indigenous self-determination: Abenaki youth perspectives.”

Sigwanis Lachapelle surrounded by the Abenaki delegation as she gives a speech on the UN floor.
Sigwanis Lachapelle issued a statement as part of the discussions on the theme of self-determination and Indigenous rights at the 23rd session of United Nations Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues in New York. (Marie-Laure Josselin/ Radio-Canada)

“How can the Wabenaki nation claim self-determination, autonomy, and self-government when our fundamental rights are constantly being trampled underfoot by individuals and groups pretending to be us?” asked Lachapelle-Gill.

“The answer is clear, we must anticipate and counter this trend to preserve the essence of our identity and sovereignty.”

Tribes recognized in Vermont

Traditional Abenaki territory, or Ndakinna in their language, stretches from southern Quebec to northern Massachusetts, spanning Vermont and New Hampshire.

Due to colonization and war, Abenaki were forced north of their homelands and settled in what is now Odanak and Wôlinak, near Trois-Rivières, Que. The two communities have over 3,000 members, with most living off-reserve.

In 2011, the Nulhegan band of the Coosuk Abenaki Nation and Elnu Abenaki tribe received state recognition in Vermont. A year later, the Abenaki Nation of Missisquoi and the Koasek Abenaki of the Koas followed.

Following state recognition, the groups have been allowed to sell Native American artwork, repatriate human remains, influence state-wide curriculum, access funding for social programs and receive free hunting and fishing licences. 

In 2005, the Abenaki Nation of Missisquoi failed to meet four of the seven mandated criteria for U.S. federal status. The U.S. Bureau of Indian Affairs determined that the 1,171-member band could not prove its members descend from a historical tribe, its existence as an American Indian ”entity” on a continuous basis since 1900, nor that it maintained political authority over its members.

Research from Darryl Leroux, an associate professor at the University of Ottawa, found that the majority of those members had no Abenaki ancestry, but rather are descendants from French-Canadian immigrants to the United States

He published his findings last year in a peer-reviewed article “State Recognition and the Dangers of Race Shifting” in the American Indian Culture and Research Journal.

The genealogy has not been independently verified by CBC News.

‘Many tribes’

Leadership of the Vermont-recognized Abenaki call the accusations of race-shifting inaccurate and laterally violent. 

“It is ludicrous to think that one tribe would claim to have the sole governance over an entire culture when history shows there were many tribes within the Abenaki Nation on both sides of the Canadian border,” wrote Don Stevens, chief of the Nulhegan Band of the Coosuk Abenaki Nation and executive director of Abenaki Helping Abenaki Inc., in an emailed statement to CBC Indigenous.

Rich Holschuh, a spokesperson for the Elnu Abenaki band and chair of the Vermont Commission on Native American Affairs, called for inclusivity and the need for coexistence. He said he also plans on meeting with O’Bomsawin.

“No one is trying to erase or replace them,” Holschuh said.

“It does not need to be us or them, yes or no. It should be coexistence of different bands in different places with different experiences.”

He said Abenaki in Vermont do not wish to pursue federal recognition, calling the process onerous and discriminatory.

“The respective states, they know that Indigenous people have been there … and they’re trying to find a way to accommodate their citizens and allow them to be seen,” said Holschuh.

“That’s all we want is to be seen. We’re not taking anything anything from Odanak and Wôlinak. We get no benefits, no benefits with our recognition. It’s a piece of paper.”

Barred from participating in state recognition process

Denise Watso is among a few hundred members of Odanak living in Albany, N.Y. She opposed the state recognition process back in 2011, but said the Vermont senate barred non-Vermont residents from testifying.

“We couldn’t speak. We couldn’t speak on our own behalf,” she said about the process.

She said many legislators, including Gov. Phil Scott, have refused to address the issue.

“They’re still not listening. They’ve had time and they’ve had our voices all these years,” said Watso. 

“We’re projecting this out to the world that this is just a total injustice where we still can’t have our voices heard. No one is listening. Vermont legislators are not listening. The governor of Vermont is not listening.”

A side profile of Lachapelle-Gill, standing at the back of a room at the UN.
Isaak Lachapelle-Gill, 24, from Odanak was a part of the Abenaki delegation that attended the 23rd session of the United Nations Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues. (Marie-Laure Josselin/ Radio-Canada)

O’Bomsawin said he’s made numerous requests to meet with the governor, to no avail. Scott’s office did not respond to requests for comment. 

The two Abenaki youth hope speaking at an international forum will help gain allies for their cause and will continue mobilization efforts to have their communities known and recognized south of the border.


Ka’nhehsí:io Deer, Journalist

Ka’nhehsí:io Deer is a Kanien’kehá:ka journalist from Kahnawà:ke, south of Montreal. She is currently a reporter with CBC Indigenous covering communities across Quebec.