Little Shell Chippewa Tribe sees brighter future with Ryan Zinke at Interior Department

Chief Little Shell was a leader of the Little Shell Tribe in the late 1800s.

The stars seem to be aligning for the Little Shell Chippewa Tribe, whose federal status has been in limbo for more than a century.

Last month, the Senate Committee on Indian Affairs approved S.39, the Little Shell Tribe of Chippewa Indians Restoration Act. The bill extends federal recognition to the Montana-based tribe, whose ancestors signed treaties with the United States in the late 1800s.

But the Little Shell people also have another powerful new ally in their corner. During his first appearance on Capitol Hill since joining the Trump administration, Secretary Ryan Zinke promised to ensure the tribe's petition for federal recognition is treated fairly at the Department of the Interior.

"My position on Little Shell has been supportive," Zinke told the committee on Wednesday afternoon. As a member of Congress, the first bill he introduced was to recognize the tribe.

"Now as the Secretary, I have to make sure that process is fair, transparent and not unduly influenced," Zinke added.

Indianz.Com SoundCloud: Senate Committee on Indian Affairs Hearing March 8, 2017

So far, the process has been confusing. During the Clinton administration, the Bureau of Indian Affairs approved the tribe's recognition petition only for the agency to change course several years later during the Obama era.

But then Zinke's predecessor, Sally Jewell, ended up ordering the BIA to reconsider after the tribe questioned the reversal. Still, that was back in 2013 and there's still been no decision from the agency.

"I hope the Congress does it," Zinke said of the situation.

But that response wasn't exactly the one Sen. Jon Tester (D-Montana), who supported Zinke's nomination, wanted to hear. He thinks the executive branch should make the decision.

"I am one that thinks it should be the department, to be honest with you," said Tester. "Because you'll de-politicize it. We'll politicize it."

A hint of that politicization came last fall, when the Little Shell bill was added to a controversial measure that stripped the BIA of its authority to make recognition decisions. Even though Zinke called the move "historic" at the time, opposition to the larger bill doomed the tribe's chances.

"But if you can just show it a little extra attention," Tester said of the tribe's pending petition at the BIA, "that's all it takes."

"I'm making sure that all recognition goes through as smoothly and expeditiously as absolutely possible," Zinke replied.

"The Little Shell's gonna be glad to hear that," said Tester, whose very first bill when he joined Congress in 2007 was for the tribe.

Senate Committee on Indian Affairs Notice:
Oversight Hearing on “Identifying Indian Affairs priorities for the Trump Administration” (March 8, 2017)

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