Why the COVID-19 Vaccine Trial is Part of “Life’s Mission” for Abenaki Chief

COVID Vaccine participant, Don Stevens.

Posted December 31, 2020

As researchers across the world race to develop and distribute vaccines to stop the spread of COVID-19, Vermonters and New Yorkers have offered their arms to science, volunteering to participate in the Oxford-AstraZeneca COVID-19 vaccine trial at The Larner College of Medicine Vaccine Testing Center at The University of Vermont and UVM Medical Center.

These volunteers come from diverse backgrounds and offer varying reasons for becoming involved. A unifying theme, though, is a desire to be part of something bigger than themselves.

Here is Don’s story.

Don Stevens, 54, Shelburne, VT

“No matter where I am in life, I try to remember where I came from,” says Don Stevens, chief of the Nulhegan Band of the Coosuk-Abenaki Nation. “With that in mind, I’ve made it my life’s mission to make a difference.”

The first in his family to attend college, Stevens is a writer, political activist, environmentalist and IT expert. He frames his life and achievements through the lens of what came before, he says. He respects his parents for the humble, loving home he grew up in; he honors his elders for the history they created for his people.

Unfortunately, some of what came before also includes a shameful period in American history from 1907 to 1963 when 64,000 women were forcibly sterilized under eugenic legislation. Native American women were particularly vulnerable, and Stevens remembers that his proud grandmother changed her name frequently to protect herself from being called to “volunteer” for the program. 

Stevens vowed to do whatever he could to help protect the elders of his community, becoming active in tribal and state politics. As chief, he helped his people earn state recognition and acquire tribal lands -- among other achievements -- in an effort to uplift the Abenaki people. He has also worked to address the health disparities of his people through food security programs and, with others, helped establish an Abenaki language program at Middlebury College.

Now, Stevens is one of the first volunteers for the COVID-19 clinical trial.

He knows that his fellow Abenakis may be reticent to sign up for a new vaccine; even his wife and children expressed trepidation about his decision to participate in the trials. That, he says, is precisely why he felt he needed to do it. Having seen firsthand how vulnerable some of his people are to COVID-19, he wants to lead by example.

“I stand on the shoulders of my ancestors,” says Stevens. “As I fight for them, I fight for those who come next.” 

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