The Little Shell Tribe of Montana Just Got Federal Recognition. Why Did It Take So Long?

Gabriel Furshong December 23, 2019

On Friday, after more than 100 years of struggle, the Little Shell Band of Chippewa became the 574th American Indian Tribe to be officially recognized by the United States government.

Five gen­er­a­tions of Lit­tle Shell peo­ple lived and died as mem­bers of an Amer­i­can Indi­an tribe that, accord­ing to the fed­er­al gov­ern­ment, didn’t exist. 

Ger­ald Gray, 52, rep­re­sents the sixth gen­er­a­tion to car­ry on the fight. Last week, the cur­rent chair­man of the trib­al coun­cil was at his office in Billings, Mon­tana when Con­gress final­ly approved the Lit­tle Shell of Chippe­wa Indi­ans Trib­al Restora­tion Act, a bill grant­i­ng fed­er­al recog­ni­tion to the Mon­tana tribe of more than 5,000 peo­ple. Gray’s mind was with those who came before him.

Every morn­ing I smudge and say my morn­ing prayers to my rela­tions because I think they still guide the Lit­tle Shell peo­ple, ” he said. I think of my grand­fa­ther Ernest Gray who was sent to board­ing school as a lit­tle boy to remove the Indi­an from the Indi­an. They want­ed to teach him the white man’s ways.”

Now, after more than a cen­tu­ry of strug­gle that began with a con­tro­ver­sial treaty agree­ment in 1892, cur­rent and future gen­er­a­tions of Lit­tle Shell peo­ple will be rec­og­nized as cit­i­zens of a sov­er­eign indige­nous nation, the 574th tribe to be rec­og­nized by the Unit­ed States. The tribe will be per­mit­ted to exer­cise lim­it­ed self-gov­er­nance through its trib­al coun­cil. Enrolled cit­i­zens will also be able to access fed­er­al fund­ing for health­care, edu­ca­tion, and eco­nom­ic devel­op­ment which the U.S. is legal­ly oblig­at­ed to pro­vide as com­pen­sa­tion for appro­pri­at­ing their ances­tral land and resources. 

These rights and ben­e­fits can be life-chang­ing for Native peo­ple whose fore­bears were fre­quent­ly sub­ject­ed to vio­lent mil­i­tary aggres­sion and denied basic civ­il rights — peo­ple who often remain polit­i­cal­ly and eco­nom­i­cal­ly iso­lat­ed today. Despite these crimes and inequities, Con­gress rarely deliv­ers jus­tice and rec­on­cil­i­a­tion to Native peo­ple who lack fed­er­al recog­ni­tion. There are hun­dreds of unrec­og­nized tribes in the U.S., but Con­gress has passed just three trib­al recog­ni­tion bills since 1995, includ­ing the Lit­tle Shell bill last week, while more than 80 bills have died. Dur­ing this same time peri­od, the Bureau of Indi­an Affairs, which can rec­og­nize tribes regard­less of con­gres­sion­al action, accept­ed 10 tribes and reject­ed 22 oth­ers through an ardu­ous admin­is­tra­tive process that can require many years of legal navigation. 

Mem­bers of the Lit­tle Shell Chippe­wa Tribe hold a flag cer­e­mo­ny at the Lit­tle Shell annu­al pow wow at First People’s Buf­fa­lo Jump in Ulm, Mont. on Aug. 24. Trib­al Chair­man Ger­ald Gray, in the green check­ered shirt, stands next to Rep. Greg Gian­forte, in a blue shirt and tan ball cap. Coun­cil­woman Colleen Hill, in blue skirt and white blouse, stands behind Gray. (Pho­to by Gabriel Furshong)

The Lit­tle Shell have decades of expe­ri­ence trav­el­ing down both of these paths, and their expe­ri­ence sheds light on what many Native lead­ers and law­mak­ers con­sid­er a deeply flawed process fraught by bureau­crat­ic inflex­i­bil­i­ty and polit­i­cal bias. The tribe’s dual strug­gle also points to a sig­nif­i­cant dis­agree­ment among law­mak­ers over which process should be giv­en pri­or­i­ty in decid­ing future cases.

I think the bet­ter place to have this done is with­in the agency,” U.S. Sen­a­tor Jon Tester (D‑Mont.) told me. The BIA has a bet­ter chance of trac­ing lin­eages and deter­min­ing whether the peo­ple seek­ing recog­ni­tion are bona fide. But this is the third [admin­is­tra­tion] I’ve served under and none of them could get it done. Con­gress act­ed because no one else was will­ing to do their job.”

The Lit­tle Shell recog­ni­tion act was the first bill Sen. Tester intro­duced after he was elect­ed to the Sen­ate in 2006. He spon­sored the bill, in part, to apply pres­sure on the BIA to make a final deci­sion on the Lit­tle Shell’s case, which had been pend­ing since 1978. The Lit­tle Shell weren’t the only tribe that had been wait­ing for decades for a final deci­sion, and in 2015, the Oba­ma admin­is­tra­tion sig­nif­i­cant­ly revised the BIA process, a move that was sup­port­ed by the Nation­al Con­gress of Amer­i­can Indi­ans and oth­er groups focused on Amer­i­can Indi­an rights. That rule was opposed by some law­mak­ers who viewed it as an attempt by BIA staff to make deci­sions that should be left to Congress.

This seems to be the view held by Montana’s lone rep­re­sen­ta­tive in Con­gress, Greg Gian­forte, who is now run­ning for gov­er­nor. He spon­sored the Lit­tle Shell bill and helped it pass the House twice, first in 2018 and again this year. In August, he attend­ed the tribe’s annu­al pow wow near Ulm, Mont., and I asked him whether he thought Con­gress or the BIA should be the pri­ma­ry influ­ence on trib­al recognition. 

I think it’s appro­pri­ate that Con­gress have a hand in doing the recog­ni­tion,” he said, but he stopped short of say­ing Con­gress should be the sole author­i­ty, a posi­tion held by some of his GOP col­leagues.

He also sought to defend Con­gress against accu­sa­tions that it has neglect­ed trib­al recog­ni­tion issues. 

It is very dif­fi­cult to get things done in Wash­ing­ton by design,” he told me. Our found­ing fathers said that if any one body or if any one per­son were in charge, that would be tyran­ny. So, it is pur­pose­ful­ly dif­fi­cult to get stuff done in Wash­ing­ton. You need to get bills out of com­mit­tee, you need to get them out of your body, they need to pass the oth­er bicam­er­al body, and then the pres­i­dent has to sign it. So, it’s a long road.” 

Too long, accord­ing to Sen. Tester, who has watched his bill get blocked by indi­vid­ual law­mak­ers too many times over the last 12 years. 

It’s a wrong that has gone on far too long,” he said. It needs to be fixed. The [tribe has] been work­ing in good faith for gen­er­a­tions and kept com­ing up short.” 

For these rea­sons, Tester re-intro­duced his recog­ni­tion bill in six con­sec­u­tive ses­sions fol­low­ing his first attempt in 2006. The sev­enth try did the trick. Ear­li­er this year, he and Sen. Steve Daines, Montana’s first-term repub­li­can sen­a­tor, suc­cess­ful­ly attached the Lit­tle Shell bill as an amend­ment to the Nation­al Defense Autho­riza­tion Act. On Fri­day evening, Pres­i­dent Trump signed that bill into law before leav­ing on a week­end trip to Mar-e-Lago.

Across the coun­try in Mon­tana, Sen. Tester joined Gov­er­nor Steve Bul­lock (D‑Mont.) and mem­bers of the Lit­tle Shell tribe on the steps of the state Capi­tol in Hele­na for a cel­e­bra­to­ry press con­fer­ence. About 75 peo­ple watched as trib­al mem­bers drummed, sang, and prayed. The Lit­tle Shell flag was slow­ly hoist­ed up one of two poles that flank the Capi­tol steps, to join the U.S. flag and Mon­tana flag fly­ing on the other.

Chair­man Gray was unable to make the four hour dri­ve from Billings, but Colleen Hill, 61, a trib­al coun­cil mem­ber who lives in the small town of Black Eagle, echoed his rev­er­ence for past generations.

We lost my mom in June,” Hill said. She was a past coun­cil mem­ber and was in the fight for recog­ni­tion for a long time.”

But she was also think­ing about future gen­er­a­tions, includ­ing her 12 grand­kids. When they ask her what fed­er­al recog­ni­tion means, she tells them this: A wrong has been right­ed, and now our peo­ple can move forward.”

Gabriel Fur­shong lives in Hele­na, Mon­tana, where he writes for The Nation, The Amer­i­can Prospect, and oth­er publications.
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