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Little Shell Tribe federal recognition passes Congress, headed to president's desk

Posted at 12:36 PM, Dec 17, 2019
and last updated 2019-12-17 19:56:21-05

The Little Shell Tribe of Chippewa Indians of Montana has fought a decades-long battle to win federal recognition. Now, that effort is on its way to President Donald Trump’s desk.

On Tuesday, the U.S. Senate gave final approval to the National Defense Authorization Act, a major defense funding bill that included Little Shell recognition as an amendment. The U.S. House passed the bill last week.

Once the president signs off on the bill, the Little Shell and its members will be entitled to all services and benefits the federal government provides to recognized tribes.

Little Shell tribal chairman Gerald Gray credited Montana’s congressional delegation for their efforts to make this a reality.

“It’s an exciting day, because our future generations won’t have to take up this battle that we’ve been fighting for so long,” he said. “It’s truly amazing. We’re very excited and very, very appreciative to our delegation.”

Gray spoke to reporters Tuesday on a conference call with U.S. Sens. Steve Daines and Jon Tester. Both men, along with U.S. Rep. Greg Gianforte, have all introduced bills to formalize Little Shell recognition during their time in Congress.

“It shows what can be done when the entire Montana delegation unites – to have Congressman Gianforte in the House, Sen. Tester and myself working hard in the Senate to get an outcome on behalf of the Little Shell Tribe,” said Daines.

In addition to allowing the Little Shell access to federal funding and services through agencies like the Bureau of Indian Affairs and Indian Health Service, the legislation also states the U.S. Department of Interior shall acquire 200 acres to serve as a land base for the tribe.

“If you’re Little Shell, you know how big of a day this is,” Tester said. “It might not seem like a big deal to the folks who aren’t impacted, but the truth is that this is going to allow the Little Shell to really move forward in a way that they’ve been trying to do for 150 years.”

The Little Shell Tribe, headquartered in Great Falls, includes about 5,000 enrolled members around the state. The tribe has a long history, dating back to followers of Chief Little Shell, who were left without recognition or a land base after disputes over a federal treaty in 1892.

The tribe filed a petition for federal recognition in 1978 that remains pending to this day. Tribal leaders have submitted extensive documentation to the federal government in hopes of meeting the requirements to be recognized. The state of Montana has officially recognized the Little Shell Tribe for over a decade.

This is the first time Little Shell recognition has cleared the full Congress. Last year, a bill nearly passed the Senate in the closing days of the 115th Congress, but it failed to receive consent from all 100 senators in order to move forward.

This year, the Little Shell legislation was attached to what is considered a “must-pass” defense bill. Tester credited Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell for making that possible.

Once the bill becomes law, Daines and Tester said they want the Bureau of Indian Affairs and other federal agencies to quickly begin working with the Little Shell to ensure they are treated as any other tribe.

“The BIA is very, very aware of this, and we will be expecting the Bureau and Indian Health Service both to be able to step up and get this implemented in a timely manner,” said Tester. “If not, they will have some pretty serious oversight.”

Daines said, after last year’s effort fell short, Gray gave him a metal can, to symbolize Congress “kicking the can down the road” on the Little Shell. He said he promised to bring the can back to Montana and shoot holes into it once the tribe finally achieved recognition.

“I’m looking forward to taking that can back to Montana, and we’ll have a celebratory moment when we destroy that tin can with the recognition that you so richly deserve,” he said.

Gray said the Little Shell are looking forward to finally being able to celebrate that full recognition.

“This is literally one of the most historical days for the Little Shell Tribe,” he said. “It’s truly amazing, I’m almost speechless that this is finally come to fruition for us.”