As New Hampshire group plans Abenaki cultural center, First Nations leaders have questions
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As New Hampshire group plans Abenaki cultural center, First Nations leaders have questions

A New Hampshire nonprofit is working to open a new center in Claremont focused on the culture and history of the Abenaki people.

While many Claremont residents have welcomed the idea as a way to increase knowledge about the state’s Indigenous people, the project also raises questions about the authenticity of that knowledge.

The non-profit organization presents itself as an Abenaki tribe: the Ko’asek Traditional Band of the Sovereign Abenaki Nation. But it is not recognized by the Abenaki First Nations of Canada and has no demonstrable connection to the Abenaki people.

At a Claremont Zoning Board meeting in September, Ko’asek Band Chief Paul Bunnell presented the group’s plan to begin construction of a new centre focused on the culture and history of the Abenaki people.

Seated behind a small microphone, Bunnell wore a beaded headdress with a feather hanging over his shoulder and a leather pouch and necklaces tied around his neck.

Bunnell, who oversees the group’s day-to-day operations, from events to finances, outlined the vision for the cultural center, which would be built on about 10 acres of land donated by a local family.

“We plan to label all trees, all plants that are native, whether they’re food, poison or medicine, things like that,” Bunnell told the council.

Paul Bunnell testifies at a Claremont Zoning Board meeting in September 2023. He wears a beaded headdress with a feather and several necklaces.

Paul Bunnell testifies at a Claremont Zoning Board meeting in September 2023.

Bunnell said the center would also display Native American artifacts, including arrowheads and a grinding stone, and offer educational programs on Abenaki history, particularly for school groups.

“So it’s not just going to be for the tribe,” Bunnell said. “Our goal (in) our tribe is to reach out to the community.”

The zoning board asked Bunnell a few questions, then quickly granted a variance to begin work on the cultural center in that residential neighborhood.

One question the council did not ask was about the Ko’asek Nation’s ties to any of the Abenaki First Nations.

Leaders of the federally recognized Odanak First Nation, an Abenaki First Nation in Canada, have said for years that several groups claiming Abenaki heritage in New Hampshire and Vermont have no connection to the community.

This includes Bunnell’s band, the Ko’asek, which currently has about 540 members. The group is a nonprofit organization registered as the Ko’asek of Turtle Island, and is not a state or federally recognized tribe. New Hampshire has no recognized tribes, although a bill to recognize one has been introduced in the state legislature.

To become a member of the Ko’asek, a person must have at least one Indigenous ancestor in their genealogy, regardless of how many generations ago that ancestor lived or whether they were Abenaki. Bunnell suggests researching potential members’ genealogies for them. Some members identify as members of other Native American tribes, not as Abenaki.

This differs significantly from the enrollment process for federally recognized tribes and First Nations, which is much more rigorous and requires members to demonstrate that they are part of a continuous family lineage within that group.

Odanak deputy executive director Suzie O’Bomsawin says the Bunnell group publicly claims its ancestry to members of its community.

“On their website they list a number of people, the different chiefs. Some of them are actually Odanak chiefs,” O’Bomsawin said.

She said members of Bunnell’s group are not listed on any of Odanak’s family trees.

“They have no connection with us,” O’Bomsawin said.

    Suzie O'Bomsawin stands outside the Abenaki government building in Odanak.

Elodie Reed

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Vermont Public

Suzie O’Bomsawin is the Deputy Director General of the Abenaki Council of Odanak.

Bunnell, for his part, claims to have discovered his Native American roots later in life. His explanation is common among people in the northeastern United States who claim Native American ancestry but are in turn recognized by the tribes and First Nations to which they claim ancestry.

“I started discovering all this stuff… all this information about my Native American heritage, which we were never even told we had, because it was a taboo subject in most families because we were pushed underground because of persecution,” Bunnell told NHPR in an interview.

Bunnell shared with NHPR a personal genealogy he researched himself that claimed ties to several Native American communities, including the Abenaki. NHPR spoke with Darryl Leroux, an associate professor of political studies at the University of Ottawa who studies Indigenous identity fraud. Leroux found no Abenaki ancestors in Bunnell’s genealogy.

Leaders of Canada’s Odanak First Nation and Indigenous historians say Bunnell’s account of living in hiding due to persecution is not only historically inaccurate, but also ignores the Abenaki people who lived proudly and publicly for generations as community leaders, business owners and cultural practitioners.

It’s one reason Odanak leaders say they worry about the influence groups like Bunnell’s have had in New Hampshire, and one reason they urge caution among those who look to them as authorities on Abenaki history and culture.

Daniel Nolett, executive director of the Abenaki Council of Odanak, is concerned about the programming the Bunnell group plans to offer at the cultural centre and whether it will be historically accurate and culturally informed.

“So where do they get their credentials?” Nolett asked. “Because they clearly haven’t been able to prove that they’re related to the Abenaki, or Odanak, or Wolinak,” the other federally recognized Abenaki First Nation in Canada.

Dr. Kim TallBear, a professor at the University of Alberta and a citizen of the Sisseton-Wahpeton Oyate, has written extensively on Native American identity fraud and race change – a term used to describe people who publicly claim Indigenous ancestry without having any connection to an Indigenous community.

As for the Ko’asek’s plans to teach Abenaki culture to school groups at the new centre, TallBear says exercising that kind of authority without a genuine connection to the community is dangerous.

“If they’re making up the history and their genealogy, then you can’t be sure that they’re not making up the history and the culture, quote, unquote, that they’re teaching these kids,” TallBear said.

But it seems that supporters of the Ko’asek and other groups claiming Abenaki ancestry in New Hampshire don’t question the authenticity of these groups. For those unfamiliar with how Indigenous identity works — and how it differs from other identities like race or sexuality — asking these questions can be uncomfortable, TallBear says.

Abenaki Council of Odanak Executive Director Daniel Nolett, second from left, at a United Nations forum on Indigenous identity fraud in April 2024. Nolett is wearing a black suit.

Elodie Reed

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Abenaki Council of Odanak Executive Director Daniel Nolett, second from right, at a United Nations forum on Indigenous identity fraud in April 2024.

The Ko’asek Nation’s largest donor is a well-known philanthropic group in the state: the New Hampshire Charitable Foundation, which has given the group $53,500 over the past four years.

NHPR asked the foundation about the decision to support the Ko’asek Nation while the group’s identity is being challenged by a federally recognized Abenaki First Nation.

The NHCF declined an interview, including questions about how it reviewed the Ko’asek. In a statement, a spokesperson said the NHCF’s goal is to “Making New Hampshire a more just, sustainable, and vibrant community where everyone can thrive. But right now, many people in our state face barriers to thriving, especially in communities of color.

“To achieve our goal, we are committed to advancing equity, racial justice and economic security. This includes supporting hundreds of nonprofits across the state, including organizations like (Ko’saek) that provide outreach and education experiences to strengthen community, support the local economy and raise awareness of the region’s Native American culture.”

As for leadership in Claremont, Nancy Merrill, who oversees the city’s planning and development department, said the decision to support the cultural center project was a matter of good intentions.

“If the intent is the same and the goal is the same, I’m not sure it necessarily matters who leads the effort,” Merrill said.

TallBear said supporting Indigenous representation can be tempting for communities that want to feel inclusive, but without proper research, she says it can cause more harm than good.

“There are local non-Native communities that don’t think in terms of tribal sovereignty because they don’t have relationships with tribes, but they think in terms of equity, diversity and inclusion, and they’re trying to grab every Indian they can find,” TallBear said. “That’s the situation we’re in. It’s a real difficult situation.”

Bunnell’s group has continued to meet regularly to discuss plans to open the Claremont Cultural Center. He said they are still seeking additional grant funding before they can open.

The New Hampshire Charitable Foundation is a NHPR underwriter and has no influence over our newsroom’s reporting.

Editor’s Note: NHPR acknowledges that our newsroom has never sought to verify claims of Indigenous ancestry, relying instead on sources to identify themselves. We now understand that verifying such claims – particularly when they involve individuals claiming to be leaders or speaking on behalf of an Indigenous community who are not members of a federally recognized tribal nation – is part of our fundamental responsibility as journalists. We are committed to continuing to take steps to better ensure the accuracy of our coverage of Indigenous communities and issues.