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Native Sun News: Little Shell Tribe gets closer to recognition

Filed Under: National | Recognition
More on: 113th, house, john walsh, jon tester, little shell, montana, native sun news, scia, senate, treaties

The following story was written and reported by Brandon Ecoffey, Native Sun News Managing Editor. All content © Native Sun News.

Senator Jon Tester (D-Montana)

Little Shell Band inches closer to federal recognition
By Brandon Ecoffey
Native Sun News Managing Editor

WASHINGTON —The Little Shell Band of Chippewa Indians, after more than 35 years of attempts to become a federally recognized tribe, is now beginning to see light at the end of the tunnel.

Two separate bills, one in the House and one in the Senate, are being lobbied for by congressman from both sides of the aisle.

Late last week the Senate Committee on Indian Affairs approved a bill that would grant the already state recognized tribe, federal recognition. The bill that was introduced by Sen. Tester (D-MT) and Sen. Walsh (R-MT) if passed would be the first recognition bill passed in more than twenty years.

“The Little Shell deserves recognition and passing this bill through committee is a big step in the right direction,” Tester said. “While the journey has been difficult, the Little Shell has the backing of the State of Montana, all affected local governments and all of Montana's tribes. I will continue to press for the long-overdue respect and federal recognition the Little Shell earned.”

Sen. Tester recently took over chairmanship of the Indian Affairs Committee and has wasted no time as he has begun championing several bills relevant to Indian Country including one that would provide funding for Native language Immersion learning which tribal leaders from across the Northern Plains have praised. Senator Tester barely survived a re-election campaign that saw voters from heavily populated Indian precincts carry him to victory.

The newly appointed Sen. Walsh, a Democrat, who co-sponsored the bill, also feels that the legislation is necessary and deserved.

“This important step towards recognition is long-overdue for the Little Shell,” Walsh said. “I’m proud to partner with Chairman Tester to help finally right a wrong that will allow the Little Shell to have the federal recognition they deserve.”

Although Federal Recognition bills have been controversial and highly politicized in the past, Little Shell’s campaign to become federally recognized has received support from tribes in Montana and states congressional representatives.

“Nobody opposes our recognition,” said Little Shell Chairman Gerald Gray. “Every tribe in Montana supports us and the state recognizes us as a tribe. It has been a long journey but we are now beginning to see some progress…We deserve to be recognized because we are a tribe.”

The Little Shell Tribe descends from the signatories of the Pembina Treaty of 1863. The treaty that saw large portions of the state of North Dakota ceded to the federal government. The treaty was also signed by members of the Turtle Mountain Band of Chippewa and the Chippewa-Cree people who now inhabit the Rocky Boy Reservation in Montana.

After the Pembina Treaty was ratified by Congress in October of 1863 the Little Shell followed the Buffalo herds westward in to Montana and in to the Turtle Mountains of North Dakota. In 1892 a United States Commission was assigned the duty of negotiating a cession of lands from the Turtle Mountain Chippewa and to facilitate removal of the Indians from the area. Chief Little Shell and his band refused to sign on to the deal and walked out of the negotiations. A group would follow Little Shell and they would become known as the Little Shell Band.

In 1908 the United States Congress began working to recognize the tribe and had attempted to provide funding to purchase trust lands for them however after political wrangling, efforts stalled and none was ever purchased on behalf of the Little Shell Band. In the 1930’s and 1940’s the tribe attempted to once again earn federal recognition under then Commissioner of Indian Affairs John Collier’s Indian Reorganization Act. Federal agents who visited the Little Shell determined that the tribe should be provided recognition and funds to purchase lands, however federal finances were drastically impacted by the Great Depression and once again lands were never purchased.

Little Shell along with Turtle Mountain and the Chippewa-Cree would file suit against the federal government in 1946 with the Indian Claims Commission and in 1972 would receive compensation for the claims in 1971 and 1982.

In 1978 the Little Shell once again attempted to earn recognition when they would apply with the Bureau of Indian Affairs paperwork to do so. In 2003 a report would come back from the Department of Interior recommending that the tribe be recognized however a more recent decision from the DOI would backtrack on that initial finding.

Although bills that would grant federal recognition are exceedingly rare the unique circumstances that exist surrounding Little Shell has led many D.C. insiders to admit that Little Shell is deserving of one of these rare bills.

The Senate bill is not the only legislation being introduced on behalf of the Little Shell. A similar bill was introduced in the House by Rep. Daines (R-MT). H.R. 2991 was referred to the Committee on Natural Resources.

The Senate bill can now be considered by the full Senate.

(Contact Brandon Ecoffey at

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