Part 2: State recognition seems unlikely for New Hampshire Native Americans

Sign Up For Our FREE Daily eNews!

Merrimack Valley’s history room contains various school artifacts that display Native imagery. A large wooden sign, created by the Class of 1986 to commemorate the school’s first homecoming celebration, spans the length of the small room. (Credit Jenny Whidden)

This story is the second in the “We have Always Been Here”  series that examines where New Hampshire stands when it comes to acknowledgement of and support for its indigenous people, what steps other New England states have taken and what Abenaki people in the state have done on their own to build awareness of their heritage and contributions to the state.



Read Part 1 ⇒ NDespite misconceptions Native Americans have long history in New Hampshire


When the state of Vermont recognized four Native American groups in 2011 and 2012, Sherry Gould discovered an opportunity to not only join a tribe, but to protect her art.

Born and raised in New Hampshire, Gould is an Abenaki basketmaker who lives in Bradford. At the time, federal law blocked her from marketing her work as Native-made, since only members of state and federally recognized tribes gain the right to do so under federal arts and crafts legislation. 

The law is meant to protect artists by preventing non-Natives from claiming their art is Native-made. But in New Hampshire, where there are no recognized tribes, Gould was left without a viable avenue until she traced her ancestry back to one of the Vermont-recognized groups and enrolled. 

Though she continues to reside in New Hampshire, Gould is now the tribal genealogist for the Nulhegan Band of the Coosuk Abenaki Nation.

Sherry Gould.

“Even though since colonial times there have been two different states, for us as Abenaki people it’s all n’dakinna, it’s our homeland,” Gould said. “Our families live on both sides of the river, so many of us have enrolled over the last 10 years in one of the four bands.”

Gould’s story is similar to many other Granite Staters who are enrolled in tribes that are based outside of the state. New Hampshire is the only New England state without a single recognized tribe. While other states have processes for tribes that want recognition, such as pursuing legislative avenues and executive orders, New Hampshire lacks even a path for recognizing Native groups. While some Native Americans in New Hampshire would like to see a pathway to recognition established, others are agnostic on the effort because there are few benefits associated with state recognition.

“There’s not one story that addresses the needs of the several groups in New Hampshire and the many, many, many, many individuals who are not part of any of these tribal groups but are Abenaki,” said Anne Jennison, chair of the New Hampshire Commission for Native Affairs. “It’s complex. To my mind, it couldn’t hurt to have a process in place — but somebody is going to have to want it badly enough to do the work to see it through.”

State versus federal recognition

NH State House. Photo/Dan Tuohy

There are two types of recognition: state and federal. Native groups primarily seek federal recognition: a total of 63 tribes are state recognized in 11 states, whereas 567 tribes are federally recognized. 

State recognition comes with sparse tangible benefits.

“By itself, state recognition doesn’t really get the tribes very much at all,” said Bruce Duthu,  professor of Native American studies at Dartmouth College in Hanover. 

The most significant benefits of state recognition are access to federal housing programs that provide funding for tribes and tribal citizens, and protection under the federal arts and crafts legislation for native artists who want to market their work as native-made.

The New Hampshire government could recognize any tribes through an executive order by the governor, like Louisiana has, or through legislative action, as Vermont did in 2011. Governor Chris Sununu’s spokesperson Ben Vihstadt said in an email that, “the Governor is committed to supporting NH’s indigenous residents.” However, the Governor’s office did not respond to questions about whether the state might establish a pathway to recognition for tribes. 

Federal recognition activates tribal sovereignty — a people’s ability to govern themselves — and would be the U.S.’s acknowledgment of a tribe as its own standalone government.

“It activates their authority to enact laws — tax laws, zoning laws, criminal laws, civil laws — in other words, to be engaged in government activities,” Duthu said. “Without that authority, tribes can certainly do a whole host of cultural and social things, but what they cannot do is engage in government actions that will be respected by the Feds or the states. That is the brass ring.”

And like a brass ring, it’s difficult to obtain. Federal recognition requires a successful petition to the Bureau of Indian Affairs, which can take decades. The Cowasuck Band of the Pennacook Abenaki People have filed for federal recognition, but there’s no telling when a determination will be made, says Denise Pouliot, head female speaker of the band. 

“Literally, it could take lifetimes,” she said. “We really don’t know when our number will be called. It’s really up in the air. I wish I had a magic ball and I could give a figure on… when a determination could be made, but unfortunately, we’re relying on the federal structure and that can be extremely slow.”

Roadblocks and requirements for recognition

Native people of New Hampshire, the Abenaki, are spread out into what is now Maine, Vermont and southern Canada. The Abenaki are part of the Wabanaki Confederation, which extends east through Maine and up to Nova Scotia. Five Wabanaki tribes in Maine have gained federal recognition. 

However, one of the only Abenaki petitions to the Federal Bureau of Indian Affairs lasted 27 years, ending in 2007 when the Interior Department denied recognition for the Vermont-based St. Francis/Sokoki Band of the Missisquoi Abenaki Nation. 

In denying the Abenaki petition, the Bureau ruled that the tribe failed to prove its historical existence over time. To gain federal recognition, a tribal group must demonstrate that they’ve been a continuously organized community since the time of European contact, said Robert Goodby, anthropology professor at Franklin Pierce University.

“It’s going to be very difficult for any Abenaki group to get federal recognition because the requirements are almost set up precisely to deny people like them recognition,” he said. “The Abenaki were subjected to such persecution and such depopulation that a key to their survival was hiding their identity.”

The federal recognition process — and in turn most state recognition processes as well — requires that a group not only have cultural and familial continuity since the colonial era, but political continuity, such as a council. 

But most Abenaki did not keep overt records about who they were. 

“What they had were extended family groups who knew they were Abenaki, who knew they were Indian, but had to keep a very, very low profile,” Goodby said. “Very often the Abenaki were not identifying as Indian, because they knew what kind of persecution had come with that.”

Historic erasure and mistrust

When a tribe doesn’t have federal recognition, Duthu said it is more often than not a consequence of historic circumstances. 

“There’s over 100 tribes that do not have federal recognition, which means we were not the subject of treaties or agreements or executive orders or federal statutes. There’s a whole host of reasons for that,” he said. “That doesn’t say anything about the integrity of their bonafide claims of indigenous status as more consequences of where they were living.”

The narrative that Native people didn’t really live in New Hampshire made it easier for settlers to colonize the land, when in reality the Abenaki were systematically disenfranchised, Goodby said. 

“That dispossession included the colonial government of New Hampshire at various times offering scalp bounties for Indians,” he said. “Public funds were used to pay for the murder of Abenaki people, and you’d get so much for a man’s scalp and lesser amounts for the scalps of women and children. And that’s part of our history.”

It’s also part of the reason why some native people have no desire to be recognized by the state, said Chief Paul Bunnell of the Ko’asek (Co’wasuck) Traditional Band of the Abenaki Nation.

“We’ve got a big population, especially in our elders, that don’t want any kind of recognition from the federal government or state governments,” he said. “It’s just a lot of suspicion because we were wiped out.”

Others feel that the government shouldn’t have input, or should have a limited input. 

 “The state is not in a good place for indigenous affairs,” said Pouliot.

After resurfacing for the school’s 50th anniversary, Merrimack Valley’s former Native mascot became the subject of debate. The school board voted to create a history room, which now houses artifacts containing Native imagery such as the school’s original graduation podium and a large wooden coin crafted in 1984. (Credit Jenny Whidden)

Political culture play into recognition and lack thereof

Most states typically act only in response to an organized effort by a tribal community seeking state recognition, Duthu said. 

“I can only speculate that it’s mainly the political culture that hasn’t created an opening for Native people to emerge and ask to be recognized,” Goodby added. “I’m certain that if there were a process, that you would have groups applying.”

But getting New Hampshire started on a recognition process would be a “completely uphill battle,” Pouliot said. She has felt particularly discouraged following the passage of the “Freedom from Discrimination” law that passed in July 2021. The law prohibits schools or governmental agencies from teaching that an individual is racist, sexist or otherwise oppressive by virtue of their age, sex or any other identity — “whether consciously or unconsciously.” 

Pouliot and other critics of this law and others like it say they limit classroom discussions about race and history.

“We’d love to be able to talk to a legislature, but it’s not a workable legislature,” said Paul Pouliot, head male speaker of the Cowasuck Band of the Pennacook Abenaki People.

For New Hampshire resident Christine Nih’shaw, who has Siksika (Blackfeet) and Iroqois heritage, it’s important to be able to have awareness about the history of Native Americans and colonists without political tension. 

“It doesn’t need to be blameful,” says Nih’shaw, who sits on the state’s Commission for Native American Affairs, but was speaking personally. “We’re moving forward. There’s no blame and we’re moving forward in a positive way.” 

The Pouliots said they are still fighting for land acknowledgment and Indigenous Peoples’ Day, but that recognition seems even further away. 

At this point, the couple said they value greater partnership and respect from the state over recognition from it: they are currently working with the state through the Department of Historical Resources, the Department of Parks, and the Native Affairs Commission.

“We’d like to have a seat at the table. That’s what it comes down to,” he said.

Nulhegan citizens drumming on the steps of the State Capital on the day the tribe was recognized. Image/Abenakitribe.org

Recognition in Vermont

Like Gould, many Native residents of New Hampshire are enrolled in state or federally recognized tribes that are based outside of the state. Gould’s tribe, the Nulhegan Band of the Coosuk Abenaki Nation, was recognized by Vermont in 2011.

In 2011 and 2012, the state of Vermont recognized a total of four tribes — the Elnu Abenaki Tribe, the Nulhegan Abenaki Tribe, the Koasek Traditional Band of the Koas Abenaki Nation and the Abenaki Nation at Missisquoi. This was done through the legislative route, in which the House and Senate passed bills to recognize the tribes, and the governor signed off on them. 

“It was very frustrating and very long,” Missisquoi artist and historian Fred Wiseman said. Wiseman helped provide historical evidence for the recognition process, proving continuity through a mix of archaeology, history, folklore and more. 

Although similar, Wiseman said the federal continuity requirement conditions are “ten times more difficult” to meet. Vermont accepts proof of Native family bands existing over time, but the federal government requires political continuity as well.

“You need to have the whole bit with chiefs and enrollment,” Wiseman said. 

The various tribal groups developed Vermont’s recognition process after four years of “wrangling with the state,” Wiseman said, adding that opposition at the time included concerns about fishing and hunting rights, and the possibility of tribe-owned casinos. He believes the feat was only possible because the tribes came together to share information and seek recognition as one front.

The recognition process that was established and continues to operate today starts with the Vermont Commission on Native American Affairs, which is tasked with helping tribal groups in the application process. Groups must meet nine requirements.

With the help of a review panel, it is ultimately up to the Commission to recommend or deny recognition. If an application gains approval from the Commission, it then goes to the state legislature and follows the standard procedure in the form of a bill.

Aroostook Band of Micmac Indians from Maine. Image/micmac-nsn.gov

Maine tribes are federally recognized

In Maine, there are four federally recognized tribes: the Aroostook Band of Micmac Indians, the Houlton Band of Maliseet Indians, the Passamaquoddy Tribe and the Penobscot Nation. 

Recognition in Maine has an unusual history in that when the state was established, it inherited two existing reservations, establishing an authoritative governance over the tribes, Paul Thibeault, the managing director of the Maine Indian Tribal-State Commission, said.

The tribes were under state control until the 1970s, when there was a major land claim filed by the Penobscot and Passamaquoddy tribes for the return of two-thirds of the state’s land mass. The legal fight ended in a 1980 settlement that essentially granted the tribes federal recognition status, but was weighted toward Maine in terms of authority, Thibeault said.

The tribal reservations are currently subject to state law, and the state and tribes have had disagreements over the years on environmental and fish and wildlife rules.

This year, the two tribes led a large-scale legislative effort to bolster the 40-year-old agreement to full sovereignty. That effort recently ended in disappointment for the tribes after Maine Gov. Janet Mills indicated she would veto the bill package.

Despite the arduous process, recognition is significant for many Native Americans, both at a personal and policy level. Darryl Peasley, a New Hampshire resident and member of the Nulhegan Band, said the group is a huge family. Whether a tribe is recognized or not, that feeling of belonging is important.

“I joined Nulhegan, and I’ll be honest with you, it gave me a really great feeling that, ‘Hey, I finally found out where I belong,’” he said. “They always want to help somebody, and that kind of wore off on me. They don’t care if you’re rich or poor, short, fat, skinny, that doesn’t matter. You’re part of their family, and they’re gonna take care of you. That’s the Native community though. It’s not just Nulhegan. They’re so welcoming.” 


These articles are being shared by partners in The Granite State News Collaborative as part of our race and equity project. For more information visit collaborativenh.org. 

 

About this Author

jenny-whidden

Jenny Whidden

Jenny Whidden is serving as a reporter for Granite State News Collaborative through the Report for America program.

Twitter

About this Author

Kelly Burch

Kelly Burch is a New Hampshire-based freelance journalist whose work has appeared in The Washington PostThe Independent, Oprah magazine and more. Kelly covers personal finance, mental health and other topics. She's currently working on a memoir about traveling the United States by RV with her husband and two young children.