Chief Homer St. Francis Passes On
Homer St. Francis, the fiery and uncompromising leader of Vermont's Abenaki, died Saturday (July 7, 2001). He was 66.
St. Francis fought lymphoma for nine years, and also suffered from emphysema and diabetes. A descendant of Chief Graylocks, who launched raids in Massachusetts and southern Vermont in the 1700s, St. Francis was the chief of the St. Francis/Sokoki Band of the Abenaki Nation of Missisquoi from 1974-1980 and again from 1987 until 1996, when he handed affairs over to Rushlow.
"He had a vision for the Abenakis and never backed down, never compromised, never gave up," said Fred Wiseman, a Swanton Abenaki who directs the tribal museum in town, and chairs the humanities program at Johnson State College. "I think he's been the central person within the last 20, 25 years in the renaissance of the Abenaki."
The tribe that St. Francis grew up in was one that had been devastated by European settlement and driven underground by racism. That racism found its purest expression in the "eugenics" campaign of the 1920s and '30s, which promoted the sterilization of Abenaki and other groups of Vermont's "undesirables."
St. Francis attended school through the eighth grade, and then joined the National Guard at 15. ("He lied about his age," Rushlow said.) Later, he served in the Marines and the Navy. When he came back home, he tried to change the Abenaki world he had left. He wanted the tribe to be respected, and he wasn't polite about it.
Claiming that the Abenaki had never signed any treaties and that their lands had been taken illegally, he led "fish-ins" in 1979, 1983 and 1987 to show he and his followers were exempt from state fish and game regulations. He won a short victory when Vermont District Judge Joseph Wolchik ruled in 1989 that the tribe had never ceded aboriginal rights -- including the freedom to hunt and fish on their ancestral lands -- but the Vermont Supreme Court reversed Wolchik's decision in 1992.
In 1988, St. Francis announced he wanted tribal members to stop using Vermont license plates and start using an Abenaki version instead. "If I get a traffic ticket, I'm going to tear it up and throw it away," he said. "This is our land."
Also that year, he demanded the federal government leave the Missisquoi National Wildlife Refuge and demanded $100 million "due to the Abenaki people for the use of our land and for damages." "It's a drop in the bucket for what they've already raped this land out of," he said.
Then, in 1990, he delivered an even bigger demand: He wanted the tribe's ancestral homelands back. He wasn't talking about a symbolic land holding. He was talking all of northern New England -- plus a good hunk of Quebec. St. Francis never got the tribe's land back. The tribe never achieved federal recognition, and only won state recognition from 1976-1977, but observers say he was the driving force behind an increased awareness and respect for Abenaki culture.
When his daughter April found her eighth-grade textbooks described the Abenaki as "savages," St. Francis had a few words with school officials and saw that the language was removed. When he found out in 1989 that University of Vermont academics were using Abenaki remains as doorstops, he went to campus and told the researchers to return them at once -- or he'd cremate them on the spot.
"He put the nation back on the map, back in the history books," Rushlow said. "He took us out of hiding we went into because of the eugenics movement."
"People knew the Abenakis were here," Wiseman said. "He didn't let people forget it."
Age didn't mellow St. Francis. Neither did his illness. Three months ago, he sat in the kitchen of the Swanton home he was born in, under the gaze of family photos of his five children. He sipped coffee, worked through a daily ration of 40 cigarettes and talked about everything except compromise.
Regarding his daughter's efforts to work with local townspeople on how to lessen the conflict between tribal burial grounds and development, he said: "I'd have them get the hell out or burn them down." On the recent riots in Cincinnati: "The blacks had the right idea," he said. "When they shoot one of them, they burn the city down."
On smoking two packs of cigarettes a day: "I'm my own man," he said. "Nobody tells me what to do. If I die, I die."
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