Tribe without a Home: Montana's Little Shell tribe still without a home
March 29, 2011
By DAVE REESE
Does something exist, even if the government says it doesn’t?
That’s the question and the challenge that face about 4,300 members of Montana’s Little Shell tribe.
Originally a part of the Pembina Chippewa tribe that once had a reservation in North Dakota, Montana’s Little Shell Indians are a landless Indian tribe. There are about 1,000 Little Shell members living in and around Great Falls, Mont., with the rest scattered around the United States.
A federal treaty in 1892 shrank the Little Shells’ North Dakota reservation to almost nothing, and when the Little Shell buffalo hunters returned from a hunting trip in Montana, they were informed that they were no longer a part of Chippewa tribe. Chief Little Shell and his followers returned to their hunting grounds in Montana and have been here ever since, a landless Indian tribe looking for a home. “They were homeless over night,” James Parker Shield said. Shield is a Little Shell tribal member and former tribal council member.
Once a proud band of Indians, the Little Shell have lived a scattered, migratory existence since coming back to Montana in the late 1800s.
Over the past 15 years, Little Shell members have been making a hard push to get the U.S. government to recognize them as a legitimate tribe, but with little success. In 2000, the Little Shell received preliminary approval from the Department of the Interior to earn federal status as a recognized tribe. But in October 2009, the government dealt the tribe what could have been the final blow to its campaign; the government denied the tribe’s request for recognition. As a result, about 4,300 tribal members continue to be denied health and housing assistance that is available to Native Americans.
Soon after the federal Bureau of Indian Affairs chose to not recognize the Little Shell Band of Chippewa Indians as a federal Indian tribe, Montana senators Max Baucus and Jon Tester launched a new effort to get the Montana tribe federal recognition.
“The government still tries to pretend we don’t exist,” Shield said. “I don’t think we’re any different from other groups of people, like the Irish or the Jews. We’re trying to stay together as a people.” The Little Shell’s native language is a mixture of Chippewa, Cree and French. The early tribal members intermarried with Scottish and French fur traders from Canada.
The effort to have the Little Shell people recognized federally as an Indian tribe has the support of all the other Montana Indian tribes, as well as the Montana congressional delegation, Shield said. In fact, U.S. Representative Denny Rehberg and U.S. Senator John Tester have both introduced legislation to have the Little Shell Indians given federal tribal status. The Department of the Interior, though, has created a bureaucratic jungle that the small tribe has had to navigate. “They keep coming at us with promises,” Shield said.
Baucus and Tester introduced the Little Shell Tribe of Chippewa Indians Restoration Act of 2009. If signed into law, the legislation would override the Interior Department’s decision by making recognition of the tribe federal law.
The tribe has two other options. They could challenge the ruling in court, or they could turn to Congress. Like southwest Washington’s Chinook Tribe, which also was turned down by the Department of Interior, the Little Shells are now counting on their state’s congressional delegation to restore their federal standing by law.
The Little Shell are a poor people, so federal status as a tribe would allow them access to economic-development funds, plus health and welfare benefits.
“More importantly, it would let us hold our heads up and feel like we have equal status with other tribes around us,” Shield said.
The Little Shell Indians don’t want to build a reservation in Montana. However, they would like to build a tribal college, clinic and headquarters in Great Falls. One of the problems that faced the legal push was gaming. Indian tribes in the United States have become wealthy with legalized gambling, and if the Little Shell were granted federal tribal status, it would have allowed them to build casinos. “We now have political opponents we never imagined,” said Shield. “The casino tribes don’t want competition from other tribes,” he said. “We don’t want a casino. That’s not our intent.” Montana Indian tribes are allowed only limited gaming on their reservations.
The Little Shell Indian Tribe of Montana asked for federal recognition in 1978, the same year the U.S. Department of Interior adopted regulations governing the Federal Acknowledgement Process.
Even setting aside the historical record, 31 years is a long time to be left hanging over a question about your status as a sovereign entity – a status 564 tribes now enjoy in America, but hundreds more seek.
“On the face of it, it’s almost a no-brainer,” Shield said. “It should be a pretty easy decision.”
According to John Sinclair, chairman of the Little Shell Band, the Little Shell spent $2 million over the years trying to meet requirements that generated 70,000 documents – a stack 35 feet high. “The process is completely run amok,” he said in a statement. “Simply put, the administrative-recognition process is a mess and, in all fairness and justice to Indian people, the Congress must step in and fix it.”