In 1976, the Abenaki Tribal Council established the Abenaki Self-Help Association Incorporated (ASHAI), whose aim was to improve the socio-economic and educational conditions of community members. The ASHAI (a non-profit organization) became the “social service” arm of the community, while the Tribal Council pursued a political agenda which could lead to formal State and Federal Recognition with appropriate rights, privileges, and dignities.
The Abenaki Self-Help Association, Inc. was predicated on a profound respect for children and elders. The philosophical underpinnings of this organization were based on values of sharing, respect, dignity, and honesty.
Operating on a lean budget (approximately $35,000.00) obtained through a Federal Community Service (CSA) grant, the ASHAI quickly networked with Champlain Valley Work and Training Programs located in St. Albans. This statewide agency was the recipient of federal Comprehensive Employment and Training Administration (CETA) dollars. Since many Abenaki community members met necessary income guidelines, training slots were developed in areas of work experience and on-the-job training. Initial ASHAI efforts focused on youth enrichment activities, food and nutrition, outreach, and job development. The work force consisted of community members recently graduating from high school, drop-outs, and some individuals with limited work experience. They all shared a vision of community empowerment through the willingness to take risks and put in long hours.
By the late 1970’s, it became apparent that a formal community needs assessment would contribute to planning efforts. The resulting profile was staggering. 31.7% of Missisquoi households were classified as low income, according to Health and Human Services (HHS) guidelines. Another 37.3% were classified as very low income. Still another 10.8% could not be grouped accurately due to lack of specificity about actual income. This group occupied a range . between low and very low.
Income in Missisquoi households came from a variety of sources. Working families whose income came solely from employment comprised about 31% of the population. Sixty-nine percent received at least some sort of public support. Nearly 40% of the Missisquoi families had no income from employment. Educational figures revealed that only 34% of the heads of households had either a high school or General Equivalency Diploma (GED). Nearly 16% left school between the ninth and grades, while 50% school before completing the ninth grade. Health and housing conditions were disproportionately alarming. In 1980, many Missisquoi families lived in homes with no indoor plumbing. Short-term goals were apparent. The development of suitable housing was critical as were issues of education and income development.
In the early 1980’s the Abenaki Self-Help Association became the state’s first private non-profit group organization to develop a “Section Eight” low income housing project. In collaboration with the Vermont State Housing Authority and Federal Housing and Urban Development (HUD) initiatives, “Abenaki Acres” was created. Utilizing local contractors who hired Abenaki construction crews, the community developed a twelve-unit housing project in Swanton. Tapping into other rehabilitation funds, the ASHAI created additional affordable housing as well.
With housing starts underway, the community concomitantly expanded job creation and development efforts. Having obtained federal Department of Labor (DOL) funds, the ASHAI added vocational training components to its community services. Through aggressive outreach efforts, the ASHAI established contacts with companies such as IBM. The ASHAI was lauded as one of the best DOL sites in New England.
In combined meetings between the ASHAI’s Board of Directors and the Abenaki Tribal Council, a decision with lasting impact was reached. Tribal leadership decided to explore educational opportunities for its members. Given the dismal profile and experience of adults who had attended public schools, the ASHAI first embarked on Adult Basic Education (ABE) opportunities. Through the Federal Department of Education Indian Education, the ASHAI submitted a grant which would focus on the experiences of community members. Concentrating on basic literacy, GED preparation, and life-coping skills, the grant was funded and dozens of Abenakis began experiencing education in a positive way. Once students obtained their GED, they became volunteer tutors and mentors. This notion of giving something back to the community became a hallmark of ASHAI initiatives.
In 1981, tribal leadership turned its efforts toward reaching children in school before they dropped out. An application for this funding (Title IV, Part A of the Indian Education Act) required submission by a local educational agency (LEA). Abenaki leadership made a commitment to effect change from within the system. The Tribal Council approached the Franklin Northwest Supervisory Union (FNWSU) with the idea of providing educational and cultural support services to children attending area public schools. The Superintendent of School Board was willing; a grant was submitted and approved by the Department of Education.
In the FNWSU, an active Missisquoi Parent Advisory Committee (PAC) was formed to oversee all educational programming. Parent participation and self-determination were deemed critical to program efficacy. Project goals included: 1) to increase student academic achievement; 2) to reduce the drop-out rate; 3) to increase parent involvement; 4) to promote curriculum initiatives; 5) to provide post-secondary opportunities; and 6) to instill a respect of cultural diversity for all area students.
An Indian Education Office was established on Grand Avenue in Swanton. Although the grant was to be administered by the Superintendent’s Office, the PAC and other tribal leaders felt an space was needed where parents would feel comfortable. The establishment of a separate Indian Education Office also sent an important message to the larger Swanton community. The Indian Education Office created visible evidence of the Missisquoi community’s commitment to equal educational opportunity.
By 1982, the ASHAI and the Indian Education Program were collaborating on dozens of initiatives. Federal Commissioner of Administration for Native Affairs (ANA) David Lester lauded the ASHAI as one of the 12 outstanding Native social service agencies in the country.
Community gardens were planted whose harvest fed the elderly and a Friday evening Disney film series was a weekly event for all area children. Over 200 children filled space donated by the local Episcopal Church; volunteers provided free popcorn and soda; and area merchants donated resources as Swanton residents realized the Missisquoi community was coordinating events that would benefit everyone.
In 1984, the ASHAI initiated its own preschool and kindergarten. Swanton had no public kindergarten at the time, and few Missisquoi families could afford private pre-school or kindergarten settings. Several local officials questioned whether low income residents would avail themselves of publicly provided early education opportunities. The ASHAI, with support of the Indian Education Program, submitted a pilot program to the Federal Department of Education. The program was a combination home and school-based model, with pre-school meeting three times a week and daily kindergarten sessions. A used van was donated and transportation was provided to the local Armory where classroom space was rented. Developmentally appropriate educational activities, a high level of parent involvement, and unique cultural awareness activities made the project a successful experience for Missisquoi families. In meeting with local officials at the end of the school year, Missisquoi community leaders could boast of a 97% daily attendance rate. The following year, Swanton began providing public kindergarten sessions for all children.
It should be noted that the ASHAI was experiencing tremendous growth during the Reagan administration, a time when many community action programs (CAPS) were being drastically cut. The Abenaki strategy was to diversity funding resources, position itself for a federal push on economic development initiatives, and develop the capacity of building community members who would offer hundreds of volunteer hours.
As the Missisquoi community began to attract much media coverage, there were detractors who questioned Native veracity. To tribal leaders, this was extremely disturbing. Determined that Abenaki children, in particular, would have feelings of pride and self-worth, the community embarked on several cultural initiatives. Finding One’s Way, the story of a local Abenaki boy, was introduced into the school systems. An accompanying teacher’s manual soon followed. Now in its fourteenth printing, thousands of copies of this text have been disseminated throughout New England. The story of Louis, taunted by classmates about his “so-called” Indian heritage, is actually an amalgam of the experience of several Abenaki community members who agreed to partake in the development of this curriculum. Through meeting with his elders and leaning about his heritage, Louis learns to be proud of who he is.
An Abenaki Youth Dance Troupe was started in the late 1980’s. Young children began learning about the rich heritage through hands-on arts and crafts activities. As the same time, tribal leaders encouraged the nurturance of performing arts. With financial support from the Vermont Council on the Arts and the Indian Education community organizers involved children, parents, and elders in costume design and creation, weekly practices, and performances of the Abenaki Youth Dance Troupe. They performed throughout Vermont at various cultural events.
Few Missisquoi Elders remained fluent in their Native language. Fearful that the language would be lost, the community invited a tribal elder Odanak (Canada) to hold language classes in Swanton on a bi-weekly basis. Through the dedication, commitment, and perseverance of key community members, conversational Abenaki has now been taught at the local high school. At a meeting of the Governor’s Advisory Commission on Native American Affairs in June, 1996, a high school Abenaki recipient of a prestigious award gave his acceptance speech entirely in his Native Abenaki tongue. For the dozens of community members attending, this was a special moment. Also, the publication of Alnodaodwa: A Westem Abenaki Language Guide (Brink and Day, 1987), and accompanying audio cassette has allowed for interested Vermonters and others to learn more about the Abenaki language.
The bead working, basket making, and storytelling classes that have been held throughout the last 30 years speak to a community that continually strives to celebrate the possibilities offered by cultural diversity. Toward that aim, it was then the hope of Missisquoi leadership that both a cultural center and a museum be established. A modest museum housing “material culture” artifacts has been realized next to Tribal headquarters which also includes the ASHAI. In what had been an empty school building that was in great disrepair gave rise to the “Multigenerational Complex.” Renovated in 2000, the building is home to the Missisquoi Health Center, a senior center for Elders, and an after-school program entitled the “Circle of Courage” Where dozens of Abenaki and non-Abenaki students come together to learn about authentic Missisquoi culture in the areas of dance, instrumental music (drumming and flute), and the embroidery of regalia to be worn when the youngsters perform at venues such as the Flynn Theatre and the Echo Center. Concomitantly, there are sixteen affordable housing units for the elderly whereby activities are planned for the children and elders thus promoting a mutuality of respect.
This year has seen over fifty students from both Swanton and Highgate avail themselves of services. Furthermore, ten Missisquoi Valley Union High School (MVU) students volunteer at the cultural center so that they may “give back” to the younger children the lessons learned when they were participants in the program. The Circle of Courage after School Program has been lauded by the State of Vermont as an outstanding example of programming that celebrates cultural diversity for all local children so that socio-economic and racial differences can be seen as a strength in a democracy.
Contemporary Missisquoi community citizens rightfully take pride in our many accomplishments. Thirty years ago, the Abenaki drop-out rate at MVU was 70% with 50% leaving school before ninth grade. Today, the drop-out rate is 3%. In 1982, fewer than 5% of graduating Abenaki Went on to any post-secondary education. Last year saw approximately 40% of Abenaki graduates go on to college.
Still, we have much more to accomplish and we continually evaluate the efficacy of our efforts so that we can strategically plan for the future. Despite years of oppression and hostile insults, the Abenaki Nation of Missisquoi (St. Francis/Sokoki Band) ensures that those in need may access the continuum of services in place for community members as well as to all Native peoples and Vermonters, wherever possible. Ours is a tradition of sharing wisdom and communal efforts. Working together, we will build a better life for our children.