Vermont forms reconciliation panel after eugenics apology

Apr 27, 2023, 10:13 PM

Don Stevens, chief of the Nulhegan Band of the Coosuk-Abenaki Nation, holds a stack of papers at hi...

Don Stevens, chief of the Nulhegan Band of the Coosuk-Abenaki Nation, holds a stack of papers at his home in Shelburne, Vt., showing family members who were on the Eugenics Survey of Vermont in the early 1900s that led to institutionalizations and sterilizations. Vermont has formed a truth and reconciliation commission to create a public record of discrimination caused by state laws and policies against certain marginalized populations. (AP Photo/Lisa Rathke)

(AP Photo/Lisa Rathke)

SHELBURNE, Vt. (AP) — Two years ago, the Vermont Legislature apologized to all Vermonters and their families who were harmed by state-sanctioned eugenics policies that started in the early 1900s and led to institutionalizations and sterilizations, targeting Native Americans, French Canadians and disabled and poor people.

Legislators also vowed to do more. Now the state has formed a truth and reconciliation commission with the task of creating a public record of discrimination against certain marginalized populations caused by state laws and policies, as well as making recommendations for repairing the damage and preventing it from happening again.

“An apology’s only words,” said state Rep. Tom Stevens, a Democrat. “You have to really follow it up with actions, and we said in the apology that we would.”

The three commissioners were appointed last month to three-year terms, with annual salaries of $80,000 each. Last year’s act to create the commission allocated $748,000 in state funds this fiscal year to the panel, which also will hire an executive director and other staff.

The panel will create commissions to examine discrimination caused or allowed by state laws and policies experienced by Native American or Indigenous people; people with physical, psychiatric or mental conditions or disabilities and their families; people of color; and people with French Canadian, French Indian or other mixed ethnic or racial heritage. At the commission’s discretion, discrimination against other populations and communities may be considered.

“It’s definitely a broader scope than normal truth and reconciliation commissions,” said commissioner Mia Schultz, president of the Rutland Area NAACP. “I think the theme is this intergenerational trauma proliferated through state policy and law.”

The other two commissioners are Melody Walker Mackin of the Elnu Abenaki Tribe, who is an artist and educator and serves on the Vermont Commission on Native American Affairs, and Patrick Standen, a St. Michael’s College professor, author and disability rights advocate.

More than 50 truth commissions have been established worldwide with some focusing on a single event and others centered on a specific time period, according to Virginie Ladisch of the International Center for Transitional Justice, which helped Vermont with its effort.

Peru’s commission, for example, was tasked with investigating terrorist violence and the violation of human rights from May 1980 to November 2000. A commission in Kenya had a wider scope of investigating, analyzing and reporting on what happened between 1963 and 2008 regarding human rights violations, economic crimes, illegal acquisition of public land, marginalization of communities, ethnic violence and state repression, Ladisch said by email.

“The broad scope of the Vermont TRC’s mandate gives the commission a chance to explore the various forms of structural harm that are part of the state’s history and that continue into the present,” Ladisch said.

Don Stevens, chief of the Nulhegan Band of the Coosuk Abenaki Nation, said his family was one of the largest targeted by the Eugenics Survey of Vermont organized in 1925 by University of Vermont professor Henry Perkins.

Some Vermonters of mixed French Canadian and Native American heritage, as well as poor, rural, white people, were placed on a state-sanctioned list of “mental defectives” and degenerates and sent to state institutions.

Vermont authorized voluntary sterilizations in 1931, becoming one of more than two dozen states to do so. More than 250 people were sterilized in Vermont, with two-thirds of those women and many labeled as “mentally deficient,” according to the University of Vermont.

Steven’s grandmother, the last of his relatives to be on the survey, was listed as a “cripple.” She changed her name several times to try to escape recognition, he said.

“She was born as Lillian May, and she was married as Pauline, and she died as Delia in the ’90s,” Steven said. “She changed her name to avoid the surveys like so many others did, but they were very good at following people.”

Among the “defects” of others on the survey were wanderer, illiterate, feeble-minded, liar, deserted husband, town pauper, obstinate, alcoholic and bearer of stillborn twins.

Stevens, who worked on the state apology and one from UVM, said he supports the Vermont truth and reconciliation commission and making the experiences for kids and future generations better.

“I wanted people to know about the history,” Stevens said. “You can’t avoid something unless people know about it.”

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Vermont forms reconciliation panel after eugenics apology