Don Stevens, chief of the Nulhegan Band of the Coosuk Abenaki Nation, had Vermont’s history of eugenics on his mind when the state began distributing COVID-19 vaccines earlier this year.
He understands all too well that the state has not always acted benevolently when it comes to the lives of Vermont’s Indigenous population. In the first half of the 20th century, Vermont enacted policies that targeted vulnerable groups for forced sterilization, including people with intellectual, developmental and physical disabilities, French-speaking Vermonters and Indigenous people, including the Abenaki.
This included, as Stevens told Shelburne News last year, his own grandmother, who changed her name three times to avoid Vermont’s forced sterilization efforts. Though the last documented sterilization occurred in 1957, widespread distrust of public health institutions remains among affected groups.
Stevens, however, accepts the science behind coronavirus vaccines and saw first-hand how the Abenaki community had suffered from the pandemic. He also knew the institutions that had once sought to eradicate the Abenaki have now, partly thanks to his and others’ advocacy, looked to make amends.
In 2019, the University of Vermont, the state’s largest medical provider, apologized for its role in the eugenics campaigns; earlier this month, the Vermont House unanimously passed a resolution apologizing to all Vermonters, their families and descendants who were harmed by state-sanctioned eugenics policies and practices that led to forced sterilizations.
Signing up, showing up
Even before the House apology, Stevens knew there would be a need for more than the testimony of public health officials to promote the efficacy and necessity of coronavirus vaccines.
That’s why he enrolled in a study testing the safety and efficacy of the AstraZeneca vaccine. Stevens ended up receiving the vaccine, becoming one of the first people in Vermont to do so, and experienced only temporary and minor side effects.
Though this particular brand of vaccine hasn’t been approved in the United States — it has been widely used in Europe — he saw his personal participation in the study as a form of advocacy.
“There’s still hesitancy out there around medical professionals. So you don’t want to be put on the list or be a guinea pig,” Stevens said. “I enrolled in the AstraZeneca study and I’m still in it to make sure that we can test the vaccines to make sure they’re OK. I figured, it works out for me, it will probably work for others.”
Selling the vaccine
As vaccine distribution began in earnest, the state saw the rate of vaccinations among groups that had once been targets of the eugenics campaign, including Vermont’s small Black, Indigenous and minority populations, lagging.
To address the issue, Gov. Phil Scott specifically targeted these groups with a coronavirus vaccine eligibility phase in early April and clinics pushing accessibility to these populations.
This promotion effort ignited a firestorm of criticism from conservative groups and pundits, particularly on social media, alleging that Scott was promoting a type of anti-white racism, despite the fact that this availability window was brief and didn’t deny Vermont’s white population access to vaccines.
Scott stood his ground against such attacks, but when asked if he saw the targeted vaccination window as part of the state’s attempt to make up for its history of eugenics, he said it was purely about the numbers.
“This is all based on the data and science, the health disparity really had nothing to do with anything else, other than we knew that those in the BIPOC community were more susceptible to this disease,” Scott said. “We knew that we were falling behind and wanted to make sure that we caught back up.”
Stevens said, “I do applaud the state. And I do applaud the medical professions, because I know there’s been some controversy, saying that they opened up to BIPOC communities before others. Everything that I’ve seen is based on health disparities. We have a greater health disparity than a lot of European populations.”
Stevens said reaction to the vaccine was mixed among the community he represents.
Some, particularly the elderly, had been homebound for so long that they were desperate to get their hands on the vaccines. Others were still nervous about submitting to vaccination due to perceived health risks. He noted that the virus had posed a particular danger to Abenaki people because of their tendency to live in tightly woven communities.
Stevens said he personally knew of four elders who had lost their lives to COVID-19, an invaluable cultural loss for a community desperate to safeguard cultural traditions passed on from older generations.
Though only 38 cases and one death have been attributed to Indigenous Vermonters on the state’s COVID-19 dashboard, the Vermont Department of Health acknowledged this is likely a result of undercounting.
“Many Indigenous Vermonters, including members of the Abenaki Nation, may choose to not indicate their heritage on census or other data collection forms for a variety of reasons,” said Ben Truman, public health communication officer. “These include the reasons any given individual may choose to keep that information private, as well as Indigenous peoples’ concerns based on historical treatment related to their race, ethnicity identity or heritage.”
Stevens, who responded to questions for this article while out of state visiting his grandson for the first time in a year and a half, has witnessed the ravages of the virus on his community and the renewed safety provided by vaccination.
He worries about the particular challenges that face the Abenaki community, a group Stevens was only able to help win official recognition for in 2011 and many of whom exist in an under-recognized gray area due to a past need to hide or alter their ethnic identity.
“There’s a lot of Abenaki. We were underground for a long time and not all people are on a tribal roll,” he said. “There are people that aren’t even enrolled in a tribe. So how do you reach those people? Because they’re just as susceptible as the people who are enrolled.”
Despite the challenges, there has been some progress made. Along with at least one clinic focused on vaccinating the Abenaki, according to VTDigger, the state has counted 2,074 vaccines distributed to Indigenous Vermonters so far. There are approximately 6,000 members of Vermont’s four officially recognized Indigenous tribes.
Case for reparations
Don Stevens, chief of the Nulhegan Band of the Coosuk Abenaki Nation, has fought hard for the recognition of his tribe and the Abenaki in general over the past decade and is looking forward to seeing the eugenics apology passed in the House receive approval in the Senate.
He also wants to see Vermont move beyond simple words when it comes to making up for past discrimination.
“I look at the apology as being a healing initiative, if genuinely given,” he said. “If somebody apologizes, but it’s not genuine or there’s nothing following it up to try to help the people that have been hurt, then is this sincere or just words on paper?”
Stevens said he isn’t looking for a cash handout, but a concerted effort to place resources among the communities that have long been deprived of them.
He’s hopeful, particularly given the influx of federal money and willingness of the state to spend toward repairing the damage wrought by the coronavirus pandemic, that there will be money set aside to fund initiatives geared to helping the Abenaki and other groups wronged in the past.
The eugenics apology technically passed unanimously in the Vermont House, but three representatives registered as absent rather than vote yes or no on the resolution.
Republican Rep. Brian Smith (Orleans-1), though he didn’t vote against the resolution, still didn’t see why he should be involved in the apology.
“I didn’t feel that I should have to apologize for something I had nothing to do with,” he said when asked about his vote. “This resolution had nothing to do with the betterment for the citizens of Vermont. I therefore did not vote on it.”
Stevens dismissed sentiments like Smith’s, and said an apology from the state is just a first step. He noted that there are no full-time employees of state government who represent Abenaki needs or advocate on behalf of Indigenous issues. Resources and representation are Stevens’s ultimate goal.
“I think it’s the moral duty and the moral obligation for people in power that can make a difference with health disparities or other economic disparities to take that as a challenge to help eliminate those disparities,” he said. “I don’t care what culture you are in. If there’s a disparity, there’s a disparity. So wouldn’t it be the moral and ethical, respectful thing to do to eliminate disparities?”