Great Falls Tribune: Mont. Indian tribe closer to recognition by federal govt

WASHINGTON – A House panel approved legislation Thursday that would grant Montana’s Little Shell Tribe recognition by the federal government.

The House Committee on Natural Resources voted 23-13 to approve legislation that includes the Little Shell federal recognition bill, bringing the tribe headquartered in Great Falls one step closer to receiving the designation it has spent more than 35 years trying to obtain. The Little Shell recognition was introduced by Rep. Ryan Zinke, R-Mont.

If the legislation is eventually signed into law, the Little Shell would become the last tribe in Montana to be federally recognized. Instead of being an extension of the U.S. government like it is now, the tribe would be able to govern itself by creating its own government, adjudicating legal cases, levying taxes, among other benefits. It also would receive federal benefits, services, and protections.

“I’m feeling pretty good about where we are today,” Zinke said. In talking to House leadership “I’m fairly confident that we are going to have very, very, very few ‘no’ votes, if any, on the House floor.”

Similar legislation has been introduced in the Senate by Montana Sens. Jon Tester and Steve Daines. It passed through the Senate Indian Affairs Committee early in March 2015, but has since languished in the chamber.

Votes in both the full House and Senate have not been scheduled. But Zinke and Daines said Thursday they were optimistic the bill would finally pass this year. They both noted that Thursday was the first time the House Natural Resources committee has voted to recognize the Shell Tribe.

“Its been a long, long road,” said Daines. “The Little Shell Tribe has jumped through so many bureaucratic hoops I’ve lost count. It’s long past time that this injustice is reconciled.”

The Little Shell Tribe was recognized by the state of Montana in 2000.

Chairman Gerald Gray of the Little Shell said the vote Thursday was a ”milestone” in the tribe’s history.

The “Little Shell Restoration Act will right the wrong that my people have suffered for over 150 years by providing us the dignity and respect that we deserve,” Gray said. “We hope the House will take action quickly and pass Mr. Zinke’s Little Shell Restoration Act this month.”