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Vermont’s legislative leaders apologize for state-sanctioned eugenics movement

MONTPELIER — Legislative leaders formally apologized on Saturday for Vermont’s early 20th century state-sanctioned eugenics movement, which targeted Indigenous people and other groups.

Speaker of the House Jill Krowinski, D-Burlington, and Senate President Pro Tempore Becca Balint, D-Windham, read the apology from the floor of the State House, standing before approximately 30 members of the public, including a number of Indigenous people — some from the Abenaki tribes of the region.

“While eugenics practices and policies are no longer in existence, the impact and legacy deeply remains today,” Krowinski said. “For those that were directly impacted or their descendants, and for all of the communities involved, we cannot undo the trauma that this moment has caused, but we can start by formally acknowledging this dark period in our state’s history.”

“We publicly apologize for the legislature’s role in allowing for this to occur. We are sorry, and I am sorry,” Krowinski said.

The eugenics movement used forced sterilizations and other practices in an attempt to wipe out targeted populations who were deemed unfit to procreate, including Indigenous people, French Canadians, mixed-race people, people with disabilities and low-income families, among others.

In 1931, the Legislature passed a bill endorsing a eugenics survey by UVM zoologist Henry Perkins to sanction such practices.

The Legislature earlier this year passed a joint resolution to apologize for those actions and the enduring harm. Saturday’s event served as a way to publicly give voice to the resolution.

Balint, during her speech, echoed Krowinski’s sentiment regarding the inability to undo the past.

“This is a moment for grief, but it’s also a moment for growth,” she said.

Although many people only think of sterilization when they think about the eugenics movement, Balint noted there were “other practices and policies that caused great suffering,” such as the forced rehoming of Indigenous children, institutionalization of poor and disabled people and controlling the marriage and procreating practices of targeted groups.

The eugenics apology was originally scheduled to be given on the Statehouse steps on Oct. 16, 2021 but was moved inside due to inclement weather.

The first Vermont State Assembly reference of the eugenics movement — in S.79 written in 1912 — referred to some targeted groups as “imbeciles, feeble-minded, and insane persons, rapists, confirmed criminals and other defectives.”

“While this thinking was not held by all Vermonters,” Krowinski said, “elected officials were able to push forward with these horrible practices.”

She said that although the thinking of the early to mid 1900s might seem like the distant past, “we know that individuals impacted [still] live in our Vermont communities today, and that the groups that were sought out at this time live with the stories that have been passed down from their families and friends.”

Balint said the joint resolution passed in the Legislature in the spring “would not have been possible without those that have been impacted coming forward and telling their stories,” thanking them for their efforts, courage and commitment.

Sitting front and center on Saturday was Chief Don Stevens of the Nulhegan Abenaki tribe. While he didn’t see the day as a happy occasion, Stevens said he was pleased with the apology.

“I think this was a long time coming and we definitely appreciate the fact that it’s an ending to a chapter and a new beginning,” Stevens said.

“I would like to make sure we follow this with things that will uplift Indigenous people and those affected, so that way there’s genuine content behind the words. I think the Legislature will [follow up].”

Stevens said he was grateful for the “strong supporters” Indigenous people and impacted communities have had in the Statehouse.

One such supporter was Rep. Tom Stevens, D-Waterbury, the chair of the House Committee on General, Housing, and Military Affairs. On Saturday, he said it “meant a lot to see people listen and experience an apology that we’ve never done before and that was long overdue.”

While Krowinski and Balint cited the apology as the first step in making amends, Stevens said the “true first step” for Indigenous people in Vermont was setting up a process to be recognized by the government and Indigenous tribes.

“That was really important, because now they can officially say I am Nulhegan or I am Elnu, and have the state acknowledge and hear that,” he said.

The steps toward truth and reconciliation for different affected communities may require different actions, Stevens said, pledging to help.

“We have to start doing tangible things in a tangible way,” he said, “instead of just treating it all like it’s a political extra, because we’ve hurt people for a very long time and it’s time to heal.”

During her portion of the apology, Krowinski discussed some of the ideas brought forward over the summer about how the Legislature and affected communities can move positively into the future.

These suggestions included promoting Indigenous art and culture in public places, making the legislative process and language more accessible, and continuing to reach out to communities historically left voiceless.

“I am also hopeful that today’s apology will bring this time in our history to more Vermonters, and lead them to read more about our past so that we all can learn from it and know we need to do all we can to be thoughtful with the laws we create in the future.”

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