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A big moment finally comes for the Little Shell: Federal recognition of their tribe

Ayabe-Way-We-Tung became the third Little Shell chief in 1872 and quickly began pushing the U.S. government for a reservation that would be his people’s homeland. On Friday, his tribe won federal recognition. (National Anthropological Archives, National Museum of Natural History, Smithsonian Institution)

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 Trump signed Friday. 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, can now 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 this 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.

Colleen Hill, who grew up in the central Montana city of Great Falls, the de facto home base of the Little Shell, says federal recognition as a tribe will alter the lives of future generations. Her mother fought for the tribe’s rights decades ago, and she has done the same as a tribal council member.

“One thing that it’s going to help with is our identity,” Hill said. “For the Little Shell people, there’s a lot of us who felt like you didn’t know where you belonged. It won’t be a continual fight to prove we’re Indian or where we came from.”

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.

For tribal members, part of their struggle has been against two worlds that considered them outsiders — not just white society, but also Native Americans with reservations of their own.

“ ‘You’re not a real Indian unless you grew up on the reservation’ is a common thing,” said Little Shell member Chris LaTray, a Missoula-based writer. “A lot of us grew up off reservation.”

LaTray, 52, who was raised in Frenchtown just outside Missoula, says his father denied being Native American, while his grandparents told him that they were Chippewa.

“I didn’t hear Little Shell up until a decade ago, which was not uncommon among members,” LaTray said.

The irony of a Native American nation’s existence being tucked into the National Defense Authorization Act, the funding mechanism for military forces that once worked to eradicate them, has not gone unnoticed. And for LaTray, it’s particularly galling to finally be recognized by a president who is separating migrant families at the border, in the same manner Native American families were once separated. Still, members are pragmatic about what it all means looking ahead.

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.

For the Little Shell, the long road to this week’s action began at home in Montana. The state afforded the tribe recognition in 2000. That turned the tide for many members in terms of reversing stigma and gaining respect, said Leona Kienenberger, 78, who lives in eastern Montana.

“After my grandparents and my parents fought so many years for this, it’s important,” she explained.

Yet the effort has lost many along the way, including Little Shell historian Nicholas Vrooman, an adopted tribal member who died earlier this year.

“Nicholas used to say, ‘This is a tribe that literally, until very recently, funded its operations with bake sales,’ ” LaTray recounted.

The final push in Congress was bipartisan, led by all three members of the state’s congressional delegation — Sen. Jon Tester, a Democrat, and his two Republican colleagues, Sen. Steve Daines and Rep. Greg Gianforte. And at a ceremony in Helena on Friday, Gov. Steve Bullock (D) announced that the tribe’s flag would fly atop the state Capitol. He called on all Montanans to honor “the strength, endurance and tenacity of the Little Shell people.”

The services that will follow could cost $41 million over five years, according to the Congressional Budget Office, although its estimate this March accounted for only some 2,600 tribal members.

Kevin Washburn, a scholar of Native American law and a former assistant secretary for Indian affairs, said they earned their place among the recognized tribal nations.

“The best evidence that the Little Shell Band is legitimate and deserving of federal recognition is the sheer persistence of its leadership. Persistence is the single most important trait of any tribal nation in the United States,” Washburn noted Monday.

“I have always told my law students that persistence is the most important trait of American Indians,” he continued. “If our ancestors had lacked that, we would have been wiped from the earth long ago.”

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