Campaign 2004: Vermont's dark secret
Sterilization program targeted Abenaki, Governor Dean wouldn't apologize
Posted: January 30, 2004 - 12:50pm EST
by: Jim Adams / Associate Editor / Indian Country Today
MONTPELIER, Vt. - Howard Dean's Vermont is hiding a nasty secret.
For more than 30 years, it was a stronghold of the now discredited eugenics
movement and state institutions performed hundreds of sterilizations.
Abenaki Indian families say they were disproportionately targeted.
Official records show a cumulative total of 259 sterilizations under
Vermont law from 1933 to 1968, when the eugenics statute was in effect.
Some scholars believe the real total could be double that, since the
records probably only cover operations in state institutions. They say that
up to one-third of the victims might have been Abenaki, the indigenous
people of northern Vermont and New Hampshire and adjacent areas of Quebec
"Every family has stories of people who were sterilized," said Frederick
Matthew Wiseman, a professor at Johnson State College in Johnson, Vt., and
a historian and advocate of the Abenaki people.
This program might be considered a historical curiosity, an artifact of an
appallingly widespread movement of the 1920s and '30s. Some 31 states
adopted eugenics and sterilization statutes before the rise of Nazi
ideology and the Jewish Holocaust made evident to even the meanest capacity
their inherent evil.
But it re-emerged as a significant issue in Vermont because of the stubborn
opposition of state officials, including Gov. Dean, to the Abenaki quest
for federal recognition. The St. Francis/Sokoki Band of the Abenaki Nation
of Vermont filed recognition petition number 68 with the BIA in April 1980.
It is now close to the top of the list for "active consideration."
As Governor, Dean, now candidate for the Democratic Presidential
nomination, rejected appeals for Vermont to issue an official apology for
the sterilizations, spurning the example of states like Virginia and North
Carolina, which have not only apologized but offered compensation to the
victims. According to Nancy Gallagher, the scholar who uncovered the
history of the Vermont eugenics program, "Gov. Dean was caught in a power
struggle with the Abenakis over recognition."
"He was against it," Gallagher said. "He worked with state Attorney General
William Sorrell, who actively tried to repress the petition."
Abenaki leaders, said Gallagher, cite the eugenics program as a reason for
gaps in tribal self-identification. "They had to hide their identity
because of the fear of sterilization."
Even worse, said Wiseman, Attorney General Sorrell has "mined" the eugenics
records for evidence to use against the Abenakis' recognition petition. In
December 2002, Sorrell and his Special Assistant Attorney General Eve
Jacobs-Carnahan issued a 250-page response to the St. Francis/Sokoki Band
petition. As part of their argument, they cited extensive entries from the
Vermont Eugenics Survey, observing, "Not a single one identifies an Indian
as an Abenaki."
The Attorney General's report has been dismissed with varying expressions
of contempt by professional scholars and historians. "It's not history,"
said Gallagher. "It's a legal brief. I don't understand how lawyers think."
But the most vehement criticisms center on what scholars consider an
extreme breach of ethics in handling the Eugenics Survey records. Eugenics
record historians at the Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory in New York state
have adopted guidelines forbidding identification of individuals and even
their locales in scholarly works.
Yet Sorrell and Jacobs-Carnahan include personal names and physical
descriptions, such as the following quotation from the Survey: "[blank] was
part Indian, part French, and part Negro. On his death certificate he is
recorded as colored. He was very decidedly Negroid in appearance."
Furthermore, the Attorney General's office has made this report widely
available. It went through a second printing in January 2003 and is now
posted in its entirety on the Attorney General's official Web site.
Chief Assistant Attorney General William Griffin, who supervised
preparation of the report, defended the use of the names. "We did not
release any identifications that were not in the public record," he told
Indian Country Today. He also denied a connection between the Eugenics
Survey and the recognition issue.
"It had nothing to do with Native Americans," he said of the Survey. "We
went back and looked at it," he said. "It seemed to be targeting
French-Canadians, if any particular group."
(Gallagher observed that very little research had been done about the fate
of Indian peoples in the state eugenics programs. She said, however, that a
primary target seemed to be mixed-race families, including tri-racial populations of black, white and Indian descent.)
Griffin also defended the content of the report. "What surprised me was the
lack of a substantive response," he said of its critics. "There is some
sniping around the edges, like the question you raised."
Although Sorrell is independently elected, he has long been a friend and
political ally of Gov. Dean. (His mother, a Democratic Party activist, is
often said to be the person who recruited Dean to run for the state
legislature.) He figures prominently in a separate but possibly related,
controversy, Dean's refusal to release official papers from his 10 years as
governor. The Attorney General's office vetted the Memorandum of
Understanding that withholds Dean's papers from public view for ten years
and is now defending the agreement in Vermont's Washington County Superior
Court against a suit from the Washington, D.C. group Judicial Watch. Dean's
discussions about sealing the 146 boxes and 450,000 pages of correspondence
and official business, said Judicial Watch, focused on their impact on his
Some of the more damaging material, to judge from letters which have
already leaked and been turned against Dean, very likely involves his
decisions on Indian issues, including the call for an apology on the
Dean's papers are now in the hands of the State Archivist, who is also in
charge of the Eugenics Survey documents. Some critics of the state use of
the eugenics papers also express concern that those documents are less
accessible and in more disarray than they were 10 years ago.
"The file on sterilization," said Gallagher, "has gone missing."
This article can be found at http://IndianCountry.com/?1075485169
Quickly, mash on the I-don't-like-that-bad-AfDs-Trout-and-all-his-bad-bad-smears-and-that-will-make-everything-all-better