May 27, 2022

Justin Salisbury: Is the newest UVM-Abenaki scandal actually about energy politics?

This commentary is by Justin Mark Hideaki Salisbury of Burlington, a Mi’kmaq and Passamaquoddy Indian, and a graduate student in education at the University of Vermont. He has worked as a design laboratory assistant, economic research fellow, therapist, legislative aide and teacher.

On April 29, an event at the University of Vermont featured self-identified Abenaki speakers, who launched attacks on the four state-recognized Abenaki tribes in Vermont, including some personal attacks on specific tribal leaders. 

Attempts at invalidating Indigenous identity is a common mechanism of settler colonialism: If we don’t exist anymore, the settlers get full claim to our waters and lands. 

At UVM, there have been movements toward decolonization. Researchers are gathering to discuss decolonizing research, and presenters are teaching us what a “Land-Grant University” actually means. I think most of us are in agreement that eugenics is wrong and should be discontinued. 

Earlier this month, the Graduate Student Senate adopted a resolution urging the university to remove the name of Justin Smith Morrill from the agriculture building. Indigenous students have now been elected presidents of the Student Government Association and the Graduate Student Senate. 

At this event, I was initially confused because I thought it was backlash for this progress. 

At a basic level, human beings deserve to be treated with respect. I remember a speaker at the event pointing out the values of the UVM Common Ground: respect, integrity, innovation, openness, justice, responsibility. I could not identify these values in that event. The personal attacks were completely unnecessary.

For me, as an Indigenous student, having community and support from local tribes is an important part of my well-being. Some Abenaki leaders, like Chief Don Stevens and Rich Holschuh, have been there to support, encourage, mentor and validate me. That’s a huge thing for a young person. 

Then, we have this event, and a bunch of people I’ve never met come down and attack them directly. Where have these Canadian people been when I have needed them? Nowhere to be found. The most important thing that our Abenaki elders do is act like Abenaki elders. Whether they have approval from a handful of random Indians I’ve never met has nothing to do with their ability to help me on my journey as a student. 

I have noticed an academic custom where scholars include a conflict-of-interest declaration on their projects, laying out any financial interests they have in a project. I did not hear such a conflict-of-interest declaration at the event, which concerns me. Let’s follow the money upstream. 

The person who I consider primarily responsible for the event was Dr. David Massell, a faculty member in the Department of History. On his UVM faculty profile page, it begins: “David Massell is interested in the resource development of the Canadian North. His research speaks to hydro policy in the province that produced Hydro-Québec, and to the integration of North American economies, illustrating the process by which American capital and industry drew the North into the economic orbit of the United States.”

If this event seemed confusing, maybe it will make more sense if we use the context of Professor Massell’s work in hydro-politics. Has Professor Massell received money from Hydro-Quebec? His CV dated March 29, 2019, shows dollar values attached to Hydro-Quebec. Has he been funded by Hydro-Quebec since March 2019?

Why would the Odanak (Abenaki) First Nation participate in attacking their Vermont Abenaki relatives? On Nov. 26, 2021, Hydro-Quebec announced in a press release that it would “develop a procurement strategy with Indigenous companies in collaboration with Indigenous economic stakeholders.” Could these Indigenous economic stakeholders include the Odanak First Nation or the individual speakers at the UVM event? 

But what does invalidating Vermont Abenaki people have to do with hydro-politics? Why might Hydro-Quebec want the Vermont Abenaki to be invalidated?

Hydro-Quebec appears to have a troubling relationship with Indigenous communities. A coalition of Indigenous people filed suit against the provincial government to block construction of a power line through Maine to bring electricity from government-owned dams in Quebec to the New England grid. The New York Times recently published an article covering the battle, which is now in the Maine Supreme Court because my family in Maine fought back against Hydro-Quebec. 

The New York Times article references a plot to run an underground power line through Vermont.

Mali Obamsawin, one of the speakers from the UVM event, testified publicly in opposition to the power line going through Maine. Would she support a power line going through Vermont?

I was wondering why a leader in the provincial government of Quebec would find it worthwhile to come to Vermont to show support for an event that wouldn’t affect them. Then, I learned that the hydroelectric dams were government-owned. 

Maybe I am just a naïve university student, but I feel like this scandal also points to a problem of how American higher education is funded. As public universities receive diminishing government funding, they must rely on private-sector funding. This confuses the priorities of honest scholarship with the priorities of wealthy corporations. 

I think it is important to interpret the UVM scandal in the context of the energy showdown between Hydro-Quebec and Indigenous communities. Indigenous people are winning in Maine. Would Hydro-Quebec be strategic enough to attack the Vermont Abenaki before coming through Vermont and have their sponsored professor carry the ball?

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