The unveiling of a State House exhibit earlier this month celebrating the history of the Abenaki people and their struggle for recognition was both symbolic and important. The exhibit isn’t large — a single glass-topped case in a corner of the downstairs lobby. But to the Abenaki leaders it's an historic milestone.
It contains several important ceremonial objects presented to the state, commemorating Vermont's official recognition of the four Abenaki bands. There are strings of wampum for each of the four bands, plus two larger belts of wampum with triangular motifs symbolizing the union of the Abenaki nation and the State of Vermont. An effigy pipe is displayed, and two more informal offerings — small piles of tobacco — have been left at each end of the exhibit case. Graphic panels tell the story of the Abenaki people and their eventual recognition in 2011.
At the unveiling, Abenaki leaders expressed happiness that their existence as a nation was at last being recognized in the State House. And they noted that more than thirty years of persistence - has at last paid off.
As a State House reporter for nearly a decade, I covered some of the Abenakis' early demands for recognition - demands that were denied for many years because of fears that the Abenakis might make land claims or start gambling casinos. Ironically, it was the denial of recognition in 2006 by the federal government that opened the way for state recognition five years later.
If judged by just the art on the walls, the Vermont State House might seem the exclusive domain of white men — many of them bearded, most of them dead. Throughout the building, dozens of their portraits look sternly down upon the visitor - with only three of women and none of blacks or Native Americans. The overall impression is one of white, Anglo-Saxon maleness. But the new exhibit is changing that.
State Curator David Schutz doesn't plan to remove any of the portraits of notable Vermont men. Instead, his solution is to add exhibits that recognize the Vermont heritage of Abenakis, women, and blacks.
'After all,' Schutz says, 'It's their State House, too.'