Montana Tribe’s Long Recognition Struggle Clears Congress
BILLINGS, Mont. (AP) — The Little Shell Tribe of Chippewa Indians is one step away from being formally recognized by the federal government under legislation approved Tuesday by the U.S. Senate.
A provision to recognize the landless Montana tribe was included in a defense bill passed by lawmakers by a vote of 86 to 8. The measure now goes to President Donald Trump to be signed into law.
The tribe with more than 5,000 members has been without a recognized homeland since the late 1800s when its leader, Chief Little Shell, and his followers in North Dakota broke off treaty negotiations with the U.S. government. Tribe members later settled in Montana and southern Canada, but they struggled to stay united because they had no land to call their own.
Federal recognition would validate the tribe’s identity and make its members eligible for government benefits ranging from education to health care.
Tribal leaders first petitioned for recognition through the Interior Department in 1978. Members trace their other attempts back to the 1860s, when the Pembina Band of Chippewa signed a treaty with the U.S. government.
“It’s truly amazing. I’m almost speechless that this has finally come to fruition for us,” said Little Shell Chairman Gerald Gray, who credited Montana’s congressional delegation with getting the provision included in the defense bill.
“We wouldn’t be here today without their push for us,” Gray added.
Recognition was granted by the state of Montana in 2000, but denied by the U..S. Interior Department in 2009.
Montana U.S. Sen. Jon Tester, a Democrat, said he worked with Montana Republican Sen. Steve Daines to convince Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell to get language recognizing the tribe into the defense bill.
“There were no deals cut here,” Tester said. “This happened because Leader McConnell made it a priority.”
Legislation recognizing the tribe was approved by the House last year, but later was blocked in the Senate.
The bill calls on the U.S. Department of the Interior to acquire 200 acres for the Little Shell’s members that could be used for a tribal government center, housing or other purposes.
Gray said the tribe will work in coming months to identify the location of that land.