Vermont's Secret

Abenaki Indians have begged the state to intervene when builders disturb their ancestors' burial grounds. So far, Vermont has done little to help

Houses on the banks of the Missisquoi River, where Abenaki Indians lived for 10,000 years

Credit: Stephanie Woodard

In the 1950s, homeowners and developers discovered an area of prime real estate in the hilly northern Vermont farming towns of Swanton and Highgate. Since then, builders have constructed 57 new houses in this stretch of pine and birch forest along the placid Missisquoi River.

Unfortunately, 10,000 years ago, the ancestors of today's Abenaki Indians had the same idea. Until the end of the 18th century, the 500-acre tract was an important population center in the tribe's homeland, which encompassed most of Vermont and New Hampshire, part of southern Quebec, and the western half of Maine. New ranch houses and neo-Colonials stand among the remains of Indian habitations, some 80,000 burials, and the site of an 18th-century Jesuit mission, says archaeologist Douglas Frink, of the Archaeology Consulting Team in Essex Junction, Vt.

"It's one of the most important archaeological sites in the state and clearly sacred," says Deborah Blom, an assistant professor of anthropology at the University of Vermont. In September 2000, Blom helped members of the Abenaki tribe piece together about 30 sets of remains that had been crushed during a cellar excavation.

"It was the most difficult moment of my career, partly because the individuals had been so badly chopped up and mixed together, and partly because of the pain it caused the Abenakis," Blom says. "The tribe invited several government officials to see what was going on, and none stopped by. Anyone who did come was outraged. I went into this a scientist and left with a completely different outlook. The experience even changed the way I wrote my report." Blom hesitated, then added, "I couldn't refer to them as ‘specimens' because I saw they were someone's relatives."

The problems had started the previous spring. On May 4, 2000, the Abenaki's leader, April Rushlow, phoned Vermont State Archaeologist Giovanna Peebles to report that a backhoe operator was digging a cellar hole in a portion of the site known by tribal members and government officials to be archaeologically sensitive. Five days later, Peebles faxed Rushlow a message: "It was all OK," she wrote, underlining the letters "OK" twice. A staff archaeologist had checked out the cellar and felt nothing was amiss, Peebles explained.

Chief Rushlow was still apprehensive. An excavation for a nearby house during the 1970s had yielded approximately 80 sets of remains. Rushlow asked ethnohistorian John Moody to take a look, and within minutes he spotted three skull fragments. "The presence of burials there has been an issue since the 1700s," says Frink. "We still have not listened to the Abenakis."

Prime real estate on Monument Road

Credit: SW

Over the years, the state of Vermont has vacillated between halfheartedly discouraging development on the historic site and ignoring it altogether. "There's a big housing shortage in that area," says Greg Brown, commissioner of the state's department of housing and community affairs. "The properties with river frontage are very desirable."

Brown, a former history professor who also oversees the state's department of historic preservation, says that camps along the Missisquoi began to be replaced by houses in the late 1940s and early 1950s. Today, about half the tract has been either built on or surveyed for future building, according to Frink. Rushlow notes that both Swanton and Highgate have issued permits for additional subdivisions.

Shortly after Moody's discovery, the state obtained a restraining order that prohibited further construction and allowed the Abenakis to collect the remains. Moody says workers spent 15 weeks sifting out the 30 burials, which ranged in age from 200 to 600 years old, along with 3,000-year-old arrowheads, part of an 18th-century crucifix, 18th-century handcut French-made seed beads, and an 1827 penny.

Before the remains could be reinterred, local homeowners John and Cheryl Loiselle began to dig a cellar at their nearby homesite. This time, the state declined to interfere. "I told them that the next time this happened, I'd blockade the road," Rushlow says. So in September 2000, when developer Michael Jedware started two more houses, tribal members blocked the road and went to court to force the state to protect the remains; the court threw out that request but has allowed the Abenakis to proceed with a suit against Jedware.

The Abenaki's sacred wild sage has seeded itself over their reinterred burials along Monument Rd.

Credit: SW

Unlike federally recognized tribes, such as the Navajo or Cheyenne, the Abenakis have no backing from the U.S. government, which might otherwise assist in a burial site disruption. Though the tribe petitioned for federal recognition in 1986, the U.S. Department of the Interior's Bureau of Indian Affairs still has it on a waiting list. Recognition would give the Abenakis access to money for business ventures, a health clinic, the safeguards of the National Historic Preservation Act, and the protection of the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act, which pertains to burials.

According to Brown, Howard Dean, the current governor, opposes federal recognition of the tribe. Dean's administration has offered several objections, including the speculation that the Abenakis might open a casino, although current state laws prevent them from doing so.

Most Americans—indeed, many Vermonters—are probably surprised to discover that Vermont has an Indian population. The Abenakis, who spoke an Algonquin dialect, inhabited northern New England and Canada for 12,000 years; today, thousands still live in the area. During the 17th and 18th centuries, the Abenaki tribe suffered smallpox epidemics and continual warfare, including the French and Indian Wars. Much of their land passed into white hands by the end of the 18th century.

Mere survival became the next challenge for the tribe, whose members had fought with the colonists against the British and had been called "brethren" by George Washington, according to Rushlow. Though many tribal members stayed near their old villages, such as the ancient site by the Missisquoi, some moved to other areas around the state or lived among other ethnic groups, such as French Canadians. Most Abenakis made their living by fishing, logging, selling baskets or other crafts, and doing seasonal labor.

In the 1920s, the Abenakis faced Ku Klux Klan cross-burnings and a state eugenics program. The Vermont Eugenics Survey of 1925 and the sterilization law of 1931, which were intended to Anglicize the state's population, identified the Abenakis as undesirable—along with Catholics, such as French Canadians, Irish, and Italians; Jews; the poor; the mentally ill; and criminals. "Many members of Abenaki families who were investigated by the Eugenics Survey were also incarcerated in institutions and subsequently sterilized," wrote Nancy Gallagher in her 1999 book, Breeding Better Vermonters. The Vermont Supreme Court struck down the law in 1978.

By the late '70s, a succession of Abenaki chiefs, including Rushlow's father, the late Homer St. Francis, had put the tribe back on the map. Inspired by the civil rights movement, they held fish-ins to demand aboriginal fishing and hunting rights and pursued land claims.

The state has taken halting steps toward improving the situation along Monument Road. It has bought seven lots in the area, and the Abenakis have purchased two more; all nine will remain undeveloped. Next year, Brown says, the state plans to submit to the legislature a proposal for a voluntary compliance protocol. Among other things, it would advise builders who inadvertently unearth burials to arrange for archaeological surveys. Theoretically, the state would pay for the studies, but Brown does not plan to request that funds be appropriated for the payments. The state has also declined to prosecute anyone for disturbing burials, which is a felony in Vermont.

Rushlow says the state's land purchases have caused more damage. "A treasure hunt is under way," she says. "People know they can start digging along Monument Road and maybe get the state to pay an inflated price for their parcel. In 2000, Vermont paid about $60,000 for a quarter-acre, which is not big enough to build on legally anyway. A few thousand would be more typical around here. In 1995, they paid $325,000 for a small, 20-year-old house on 2.2 acres; big, new homes on that size plot go for $100,000 or so in this area."

Historic marker

Credit: SW

Meanwhile, building continues on Monument Road. At the entrance to the street, a green-and-gold state historic-site marker reads: "In the 1860s, Swanton historian John Perry lamented the hasty destruction of the old village, noting its antiquity and great importance to all." Lamentations such as these continue in Vermont today.

Stephanie Woodard is an editor at More magazine.  

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