Federal recognition likely as Little Shell Chippewa Tribe bill moves forward

The National Defense Authorization Act, which contains an amendment giving federal recognition for the Little Shell Chippewa Tribe, cleared a congressional conference committee Monday, bringing optimism from Montana’s federal delegation that the bill will finally pass.

Reuters reported the U.S. House of Representatives and Senate Armed Services Committees said they reached an agreement on the $738-billion spending bill for the Department of Defense, considered a must-pass piece of legislation, after months of negotiations. 

“I am almost without words — the magnitude of this moment,” Little Shell Chair Gerald Gray said Monday night. He said he had been told the news by Montana’s GOP Sen. Steve Daines and Democratic Sen. Jon Tester’s offices. “Maybe our ancestors are smiling because now our future generations will not have to take up this same battle we have fought for decades.”

Officials said the NDAA is virtually guaranteed to become law and should pass before the end of the year. The House is expected to vote on the final bill Wednesday and send it to the Senate for passage possibly as early as next week. It would then land on President Donald Trump’s desk for signature.

Daines said he fought hard to get the Little Shell included in the NDAA.

“Today is great news for Montana. After a decades long fight, federal recognition of the Little Shell Tribe is one step closer to becoming a reality,” he said in a news release.  

“Now, I’m going to keep working until it gets across the finish line and signed into law by President Trump. I look forward to celebrating with (Little Shell) Chairman Gray very soon.”

It has been a long struggle to get the tribe federal recognition. It was the first bill that  Tester introduced when he first became a U.S. Senator in 2007. He said he has introduced it every session since.

The Little Shell was added to the NDAA through an amendment named after Daines. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., told the senators he would allow the amendment if Daines got first billing. Tester said he agreed, adding a Republican sponsor was needed to make the bill happen.

“When I got to the Senate in 2007, federal recognition for the Little Shell Tribe was the very first bill I introduced,” Tester said. “But my 12 years working to get this bill signed into law is nothing compared to the century-long fight the Tribe has waged to be recognized as a sovereign nation.”  

“It has been a  challenge for me, but actually it has been a much bigger challenge for the Little Shell,” Tester said, noting the decades of seeking federal recognition and piles of paperwork the tribe has invested.

“It’s a very emotional day,” Gray said in a conference call with Tester. “It’s been a hard, tough fight for 150 years … We see the light at the end of tunnel.”

But it has been a heartbreaking quest, with several failed attempts thwarted in Congress. Tester said this time around the Little Shell amendment is tacked on to a bill that has bipartisan support.

“This baby has just about got the bow tied on top of it,” he said, but added “There is always something g that could screw this up.” 

Rep. Greg Gianforte, R-Mont., introduced the bill in the House in 2017 and again earlier this year, telling fellow House members “This Congress should provide the Little Shell Tribe with the federal recognition it deserves, particularly after its eight decades of dedicated efforts.”

On Tuesday he said the tribe had to wait too long for federal recognition.

“The efforts of Chairman Gray and the Little Shell people have put this overdue recognition closer to reality,” he said. “I’m proud to have worked with Chairman Gray to clear this bill through the U.S. House in 2018 and 2019, and to get where we are today. Working together, we’re nearing the finish line for this worthy cause.”

Native American tribes must be recognized as sovereign nations by the federal government to have full self-governance. Recognized tribes can get help for economic development, health care and education, and regulate affairs on tribal lands. The bill also provides the Little Shell with 200 acres for a reservation.

The recognition can be granted through congressional legislation, a U.S. Court decision, or through the U.S. Interior Department.

The tribe, which has about 5,400 members, has been without a recognized homeland since the late 1800s, when Chief Little Shell and his followers in North Dakota broke off treaty negotiations with the U.S. government, according to news reports. Most of the members live in Montana.  The bill also helps the Tribe buy 200 acres to serve as its reservation

The Little Shell, which has a headquarters in Great Falls, petitioned the federal government in the 1930s and 1940s for a formal reservation and to be allowed to organize under the Indian Reorganization Act of 1934. 

The Interior Department gave preliminary approval to recognizing the Little Shell in 2000 but rescinded the move in 2009. The agency denied recognition for the Little Shell again in 2013.

The bill was set to pass in December 2018 until Sen. Mike Lee, R-Utah, prevented it from receiving a Senate vote.

“Tribal recognition is a very serious matter,” Lee said on the Senate floor. “It’s not one to be undertaken lightly. Given the sacred nature of tribal recognition and the significant impact it has both for the tribe in question and U.S. government as well as surrounding communities, we have an orderly process in which this needs to be done.”

He said the Bureau of Indian Affairs in 2009 said the Little Shell failed to meet three of seven categories typically considered to meet tribal recognition.

The state of Montana recognized the tribe in 2000. Montana is home to seven Indian reservations and the state-recognized Little Shell tribe of Chippewa Indians.

Little Shell leaders posted this message Monday to members on Facebook:

“Tribal Council is excited to announce that the recognition of the Little Shell Tribe is nearing the finish line. This evening, the U.S. House and Senate conferees have agreed to a final conference committee version of the 2020 National Defense Authorization Act.

“The final reported bill includes Section 2870, which is the Little Shell Restoration Act. This is tremendous news and we are grateful for the continued support of Senator Jon Tester, Senator Steve Daines, and Rep. Greg Gianforte. Both the full House and the Senate will need to vote to approve the bipartisan bill. A vote in the House and Senate could take place by the end of the week and send the bill to the President’s desk.”