The Little Shell Band of Chippewa Cree Indians won a key victory Thursday in their longtime effort to become a federally recognized tribe.
The Little Shell Tribe of the Chippewa Cree Restoration Act of 2015, introduced by Rep. Ryan Zinke, R-Mont ., would grant the Montana tribe federal recognition. It passed through the House Committee on Natural Resources Thursday.
The same legislation passed the Senate Indian Affairs Committee last year.
“I am fairly happy with today’s outcome, and I am happy that we were able to move it forward in a significant manner,”
Zinke said during a telephone press conference.
The legislation is part of a larger bill that would make Congress, instead of the U.S. Department of the Interior, the entity that decides whether to recognize a tribe.
Zinke said he and members from the East Coast hope to pull the bill recognizing the Little Shell and tribes in Virginia out of the larger bill and take it up separately.
U.S. Sen. Steve Daines, R-Mont ., and Little Shell Chairman Gerald Gray were also on the call.
Daines, who said he introduced the same legislation in the Senate when he was first sworn in last year, called the development “a significant milestone in this very, very long journey.”
Though the legislation has passed the Senate Committee on Indian Affairs, Daines said that Thursday marked the first time it has passed through a House Committee, too.
“So now we have, we can check the box of the Senate, we can check the box of the House for the first time ever,” he said.
Zinke, Daines and Montana’s Democratic U.S. Sen. Jon Tester, who was not on the call, as well as past Montana delegations, have all introduced legislation to recognize Little Shell.
In a statement after the vote, Tester applauded the bill’s passage by the committee.
“Federally recognizing the Little Shell Tribe will help correct years of injustice and confirm what we all know to be true,” Tester, whose first bill also was for Little Shell federal recognition, said in a press release.
“It is critical that the Little Shell have access to the same resources as other tribes throughout Indian Country, and I am pleased that the House has finally got around to making this bill a priority.”
The Little Shell, a tribe of 4,500 enrolled members based in Great Falls but spread throughout Montana and across the nation, have been seeking federal recognition for more than a century.
In 1978 they actively petitioned for federal recognition with the U.S. Department of the Interior, but have continuously been turned down due to changes in rules on how tribes are recognized.
They were officially recognized as a tribe by the state of Montana in 2000.
Federal recognition would grant the Little Shell treaty rights and other benefits.
Zinke said that, because of the backing he has on the bill from Natural Resources committee Chair Rob Bishop, R-Utah, and others on the House Rules Committee, he believes the bill can make it to the floor for a vote by the House.