Shared from the 12/22/2019 Duluth News Tribune eEdition

Federal recognition finally comes for the Little Shell

MISSOULA, Mont. - Almost 130 years after their treaty negotiations with the U.S. government first fell apart, the Little Shell Tribe of Chippewa Indians has at last triumphed.

The Little Shell, with some 5,400 members mostly scattered around Montana, was officially recognized as part of the $738 billion defense bill that the Senate passed Tuesday and President Donald Trump signed Friday, Dec. 21. That pen stroke put the group on equal footing with other sovereign Indian nations, in both symbolic and very substantive ways.

“It’s really about dignity, because we’ve been fighting for so long,” said tribal chairman Gerald Gray, who tracked the bill’s final steps from a meeting of Native American leaders in Billings. “It’s righting a wrong.”

The long and fragmented history of the Little Shell, known for decades as Montana’s landless Native Americans, now can move forward with a more cohesive future. Members will have access to funding and programs like the Indian Health Services, plus a tract of their own land - a reservation, not even one square mile, in a yet-to-be determined spot - with the potential for amenities like a tribal college.

For Gray and others who don’t have health insurance because it’s too expensive, the details will be critically important. “There are a lot of members in this situation,” he said.

But the significance of last week’s action goes far beyond the obvious, tangible benefits, which probably will require lengthy negotiations with the government. Many individuals have painful personal stories to tell about stigma.

The tribe’s modern story began in what is now North Dakota in the late 1800s, when Chief Little Shell ended treaty negotiations with the federal government. Left without land, most tribe members became nomadic and scattered across the Plains region.

Today, the tribe owns three acres northwest of Great Falls, with a cultural center on a site known as “Hill 57.” The location, once home to hundreds of Little Shell, became synonymous in Montana with urban poverty. Some in the tribe hope their future reservation might be placed there, a tribute to the past.

With their federal recognition, the Little Shell join the 573 other Indian nations eligible for funding or services from the Bureau of Indian Affairs. Entry into this world is not easy; attempts to carve out a place for the Little Shell have failed repeatedly since the 1940s. Overall, fewer than 20 tribes have been recognized by the BIA since the 1970s, and six of those were Virginia groups added in just the last year.

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