Little Shell Chippewa Tribe continues long journey for federal status

An artist's depiction of Chief Little Shell, who was a leader of the Little Shell people in the 1800s. Photo: Montana Little Shell Tribe of Chippewa Indians

A bill to extend federal recognition to the Little Shell Chippewa Tribe is once again moving forward on Capitol Hill.

By a voice vote, the Senate Committee on Indian Affairs on Wednesday approved S.39, the Little Shell Tribe of Chippewa Indians Restoration Act. The bill can now be sent to the Senate for consideration.

"This issue of recognition has gone on for generations for the Little Shell," said Sen. Jon Tester (D-Montana), who noted that the very first bill he introduced when he joined Congress in 2007 was for the tribe.

The tribe at one point was recognized by the United States as part of treaty negotiations and signings in the late 1800s. But after Chief Little Shell refused to cede even more lands to the federal government, his people essentially fell through the cracks for more than a century.

Then, in the late 1970s, the tribe initiated a petition for recognition to the Bureau of Indian Affairs. But different presidential administrations have given conflicting answers to Little Shell's descendants so supporters say it's time for them to get a straight decision.

Indianz.Com SoundCloud: Senate Committee on Indian Affairs Business Meeting February 8, 2017

"I'm glad we're passing this legislation early in this Congress," said Sen. Steve Daines (R-Montana), a co-sponsor of S.39.

Yet Daines said the committee's action came too late for one Little Shell leader. Shawn Gilbert, who served on the tribal council and was working toward federal recognition, passed away last month after a battle with cancer.

"I intend to see to it that he doesn't lose his fight for his people," Daines said.

Even Sen. James Lankford (R-Oklahoma) was offering a measure of support. He typically opposes legislative recognition bills, preferring to let the BIA to handle the process, but said the Little Shell people represent a special case.

"This is a situation where, after four decades, at some point we've got to help them," Lankford said at the business meeting.

While it's too early to tell if the bill will gain more traction in the 115th Congress, the tribe does have an advocate in its corner in the new administration of President Donald Trump. His pick to lead the Department of the Interior, which includes the BIA, is Rep. Ryan Zinke (R-Montana).

Zinke supports the tribe's efforts and could address some of the bottlenecks affecting the BIA's handling of the petition if he is confirmed to serve in the Cabinet. He most likely would have already introduced a companion federal recognition bill in the House were it not for his new designation.

"Still more work needs to be done," the tribe said in a post on Facebook after the committee's action on Wednesday. "We will continue fighting for this."

Senate Committee on Indian Affairs Notice:
Business Meeting to consider S. 39, S. 63, S. 91, S. 140, S. 245, S. 249, S. 254, S. 269, & S. 302 (February 8, 2016)

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