Vermont Basketmaker Contacted By Federal Officials About Native Arts Labeling
Written by Jedd Kettler
Friday, 22 February 2008
The County Courier
VERMONT: If you doubt there is a need to change Vermont's Native recognition law to protect Abenaki artists and craftspeople, basketmaker Jesse Larocque suggests you look no further than an email he received from the federal Indian Arts and Crafts Board this week.
That email was sent on Tuesday, Feb. 19, from IACB Support Specialist Ken Van Wey. It outlines federal law and suggests that Larocque - a member of the St. Francis/Sokoki Band of Missisquoi Abenaki - stop advertising his work as Native-made.
The IACB is part of the United States Department of the Interior and administers federal Native arts labeling regulations.
Van Wey's email suggests Larocque "should refrain from selling (his) work as Indian, Native American, or as the product of a particular Indian Tribe until (his) group is officially recognized."
In an email response the same day, Larocque wrote, "It looks like you are on a witch hunt... or a fishing expedition." Later in his email, Larocque suggested, "Perhaps you may want to level your guns in a different direction."
Larocque, of West Danville, pointed to grants he has received in the past, particularly a grant from the federal National Endowment for the Arts – which referred to him as a "Master Abenaki Basketmaker" – support from the Vermont Folk Life Center, and several court cases he has won defending his rights as Native American.
"So basically what we've got is one side of the government that says, 'Okay, you guys are Indian,' and another that says, 'You are not,'" Larocque said in an interview with the County Courier, Wednesday, Feb. 20.
Meanwhile, what Larocque and many other artists and craftspeople say they are working to preserve a culture which has already seen years of pressure and repression.
"It's not like I'm out there doing something that is harmful. It's preserving heritage and culture," said Larocque.
The IACB email and Larocque's response have been posted on the Vermont Commission on Native Affairs website, www.vcnaa.com since Wednesday.
IACB Director Meredith Stanton declined to comment Thursday, Feb. 21, about either email. Stanton said her office does not discuss complaints they receive or specific "law letters" sent out to individuals they believe are in violation of the Indian Arts and Crafts Act of 1990.
She said that some 95 percent of "law letters" sent from her office are in direct response to complaints they receive. Such letters vary widely in their seriousness, from those meant primarily to educate artists and craftspeople about labeling requirements to more direct legal action.
"I think any way you look at it, not only are you educating someone, you're also putting them on notice," Stanton said. "We want them to know what the definition (of 'Indian') is under the Act ... We want anyone and everyone to know about this."
When Vermont's Native recognition law, S.117, was passed in May, 2006, many believed Abenaki artists here would be protected when labeling their work as Abenaki-made.
For Larocque, this week's email draws a clear picture of the current vulnerability of Vermont's Native artisans and craftspeople.
"The situation with me presently will allow them to see what will continue to happen if (S.117) is not repaired," Larocque said on Wednesday. "My view is, apparently S.117 falls short of protecting Abenaki and needs to be addressed ... The reality is S.117 is not working."
Federal officials have said for over a year that S.117 stops short of recognizing specific Indian groups and therefore does not protect individual artisans. In a February, 2007 interview with the County Courier, Stanton suggested that a "legislative solution" would be the best solution.
In addition to the suggestion that Larocque not label his work as Abenaki unless his group is recognized by the State, Van Wey's email also describes labeling requirements under the Indian Arts and Crafts Act of 1990, which is "designed to prevent the marketing of art and craft products as 'Indian made when they are not, in fact, made by Indians as defined by the Act."
The Act defines an Indian "a member of a member of a federally or officially State recognized Indian Tribe" or someone who is certified as a non-member artisan in such a group.
The email comes just days after the Vermont Senate Economic Development Committee heard disparate testimony on the need for changes to the State law. The current proposed amendment aims to set up a process for recognizing specific tribes and bands in Vermont. While several people testified that the amendment is either not necessary or that the proposed process is flawed, this week's IACB email to Larocque echoes Stanton's own written testimony last week. Her testimony stops short of endorsing the current proposal, though.
The amendment "answers many of our concerns about the State's recognition process but it remains to be seen whether specific Abenaki 'tribes' are recognized consistent with the federal Act," according to Stanton's testimony.
State recognition of tribes and bands is also separate and very different from federal recognition.
As Stanton wrote in her testimony, State recognition is distinct from federal "recognition as a sovereign Indian tribe."
Ultimately any solution in Vermont needs to come from the State government, Stanton said this week.
"We appreciate the fact that the State of Vermont is working toward a solution to fix it ... It's the State of Vermont, it's something that they have to address," said Stanton.
The current situation does highlight a need for clarity and change to Vermont's protections for artists and craftspeople, though, said both Larocque and VCNAA Chairman Mark Mitchell.
On Wednesday, Mitchell said, "Vermonters in general should know where S.117 stands. Vermonters should work together to try to move (the proposed amendment) forward ... To me a process is really the only way to move forward."
Mitchell said the Commission's goal since beginning work on the issue in fall 2006 has always been to ensure Vermont's Abenaki artists are protected. When federal officials told him at that time the law did not allow Vermont artisans to label their work, the VCNAA began work to define a process to achieve that protection.
Mitchell said, "We didn't set things in motion. This is all being driven by the federal government."
Mitchell said he was not surprised by the email Larocque received this week.
"I think it was only a matter of time. This could be only the beginning," Mitchell said. "As I wrote on the (VCNAA) website, 'The Feds are coming.'"