How Vermont is trying to come to terms with its eugenics past

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How Vermont is trying to come to terms with its eugenics past

Vermont newspaper archival material.

Reporting by David Savoie

A eugenics program started 100 years ago in Vermont is still a source of much controversy. The state is trying a novel approach to coming to terms with its past, but historians and Indigenous people are raising many questions about the process.

Five large boxes contain dozens and dozens of folders. Each of these folders is designated by a surname; inside are annotated index cards made of thin paper. Some of these files are very thick: information on four, five or six generations of the same family is included. There is something special about being able to leaf through these notes, which are sometimes more than a century old.

Each folder is like the others: there is the name of a family together with a full description of all its members and all their problems.

There is, for example, the record of J. M., who emigrated from Canada and lived in northwestern Vermont in 1925. She is described as simple-minded and lazy. An illiterate woman who does not know the names of her children.

Another file mentions a certain P. L., of French-Canadian descent. According to the notes, he is an unruly and irresponsible alcoholic.

Since these records are considered medical records, names cannot be released. But there are names that we often hear in Quebec, as well as typically American names.

There would be days to go through everything, well beyond the Vermont State Official Archives Service hours of operation.

There are still dozens of archive boxes containing information about families, explains archivist Mariessa Dobrick, but that's not counting the rest of the material, for example archives on institutionalization. and on sterilization.

So these few boxes are only a fraction of what exists about Vermont's eugenics program, which lasted just over a year. decade.

These documents provide a better understanding of a dark chapter of this State, which is nevertheless recognized today for its progressivism.

The program was launched in 1920. The goal: weed out the less desirable elements of society to keep only the best citizens. The mastermind behind this program is Henry F. Perkins, a zoologist at the University of Vermont.

The program begins first with a census to study certain families considered to be degenerate and defective.

The names of these families are obtained from hospitals, social services or other support services. The researchers then draw up the family tree of these individuals deemed to be problematic.

The people targeted are generally poor, disabled or sick. Many are French Canadians settled in the north of the state or even native Americans. Abenakis from Vermont say they were also targeted.

At the time, scientists were convinced that traits deemed problematic were essentially hereditary. The eugenics movement is supported by the state. In 1931, Vermont passed the Human Enhancement by Voluntary Sterilization Act.

The program ended in 1936, when eugenics was increasingly revived. question by scientists and by society at large.

It is estimated that more than 250 sterilizations have been performed in Vermont, but this figure may be greatly underestimated due to data fragmentary.

In Vermont, we are now trying to better understand and raise awareness of this less than rosy episode in history.

In her classes at the University of Vermont, historian Dona Brown evokes this dark chapter.

“Learning about this program came as a shock to many Vermonters. And that is why the state responded in this way.

— Dona Brown, professor at the University of Vermont

The academic went through part of the program's archives. It is clear that among the people studied, there were people of Quebec origin, but this is not the majority. Most of the people in the archives are poor, ethnic Americans. The reason the state is involved is because of the damage done to people who had descendants still alive today.

Chief Paul Gwilawato Bunnel is the head of the Abenaki community of the Co'wasuck, which numbers about 100 people in Vermont and more than 300 members in New Hampshire and Massachusetts.

He claims that two members of his community who are still alive have been sterilized. But he wants to keep their identity a secret to protect them.

He adds that other members of his community also had cousins, uncles and aunts who were sterilized. So, yes, the program had a direct impact on us, he explains.

It was Indigenous groups like Paul Bunnell's who pushed for an apology . This apology first came from the University of Vermont in 2019. And in 2021, it was the state's turn to officially apologize.

More recently, at In late spring 2022, Governor Philip Scott approved the creation of a Truth and Reconciliation Commission.

Listen to the report by David Savoie on the show Désautels on Sunday.

Vermont is not unique. During the last century, about thirty American states have carried out a program of forced sterilizations, for example Oregon and North Carolina.

But where the State in green mountains stands out is that it is the first to create a commission to shed light on these events and to listen to the testimonies of people affected by this program.

Alexandra Stern teaches at the University of Michigan. She is a specialist in the eugenics movement in the United States. For her, it is clear that the Vermont approach is a first of its kind. There have been apologies from some states, compensation programs have also been created, but nothing as encompassing as what Vermont wants to do, which links eugenics to health issues. racism and sexism that continue today, she explains by email.

One ​​of the figureheads behind these government actions is the Democratic representative Tom Stevens. He persevered to get Vermont to apologize and was one of the architects of the bill that led to the creation of this commission.

It was an emotional and a historic choice to try to move towards fairness again, he explains.

“The eugenics program dehumanized many people in the state of Vermont and continued for several years. And we should be ashamed of it. So it has become important for us, for political leaders, to address it in order to start a healing process that will take decades.

—Tom Stevens, Democratic Representative of Vermont

Vermont's Truth and Reconciliation Commission drew inspiration from, among other things, what has been done in Canada.

Commissioners still need to be recruited and staff need to be hired before work cannot begin, theoretically in January. The commission could lead to possible compensation, financial or otherwise, argues Tom Stevens.

All it takes is a quick search on the subject of eugenics in Vermont to reveal similarities: everywhere, there are mentions that the Abenakis were targeted by eugenicists at the time. Several Vermont Natives also said that family members had to flee or change their names to avoid being registered in the eugenics program.

The problem is x27;is that there do not seem to be any direct mentions of Abenakis in the available archives.

Some documents mention gypsies. For several Abenaki representatives in Vermont, this mention is an allusion to their culture.

However, for Jacques Watso, who is a member of the Abenaki Council of Odanak, this seems unlikely. He claims that his people were present in Vermont in the 1920s and 1930s and no one was hiding. On the contrary, the Abenakis of Odanak sold baskets near several vacation spots. Our presence is well documented, he says.

Jacques Watso (archives)

Several experts believe that he doesn' There is no solid historical evidence that Native people were targeted by Vermont authorities during the era of the eugenics program.

This is particularly the case of historian David Massell, of the University of Vermont. He has a long history of working on Indigenous issues in the northeastern United States and Canada.

If he hasn't delved into the archives of the program himself in eugenics, he has read numerous books and articles, in addition to interviewing his colleagues who are familiar with the subject. There does not appear to be any evidence that people were targeted because they were Indigenous.

Representative Tom Stevens clarifies that part of the archives was destroyed by Hurricane Irene in 2011, which, according to him, makes it more complex to know with certainty whether Abenakis were really targeted or not. .

But are the Abenakis of Vermont really Abenakis? Many doubt it.

The first to question these assertions were the Abenakis of Odanak, not far from Sorel. In 2003 and 2019, the band council denounced the claims of four Vermont groups who call themselves Abenaki. For the members of Odanak, all Abenakis are interconnected, and those who claim this title should be able to demonstrate it. A few people in Vermont have proven through their genealogy that they are related to the Abenakis of Odanak, but other groups have not.

“There are 15,000 Abenakis in Vermont and not one of them can tell who their native grandmother is. »

— Jacques Watso

Mr. Watso asserts that the Vermont groups are of French-Canadian descent rather than being Abenaki.

The facts seem to back him up. In 2003, for lack of sufficient evidence, the Attorney General of the State of Vermont had rejected the request for recognition of a group from Swanton who claimed to have Abenaki origins. In 2007, the US federal government rejected a similar request from the same group.

Other researchers have worked on the genealogy of the Abenakis of Vermont without being able to find any Abenaki ancestors either.

If the Abenakis are today recognized in Vermont is that the state relaxed its criteria in 2011.

For their part, all Vermont Indigenous groups reject criticism that questions their heritage. cultural. Some groups argue that it is an ethnocide.

As for the Vermont government, do the questions raised about the veracity of certain facts call into question the steps taken ? Not at all, said representative Tom Stevens. I think the issues raised will be raised again. We will shed light on the truth with respect for all.

  • “My fertility was stolen from me”
  • AUDIO: History Today – The History of Eugenics with Carl Bouchard
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