Hundreds of members of the Little Shell Tribe of Chippewa Indians of Montana gathered Saturday to celebrate recent federal recognition, lining up outside the Holiday Inn and filling the banquet room until it nearly burst at the seams.
“Tonight we commemorate an effort that no tribe should have to go through,” Tribal Chair Gerald Gray said, adding it is a “nation we can all be proud of.”
The celebration came about one month after President Donald Trump signed the National Defense Authorization Act, which contained an amendment giving the Little Shell Tribe the federal recognition it had long coveted.
“Waiting for the day that never comes is over,” said John Gilbert, former tribal chair.
Little Shell members had met earlier in the day to celebrate the federal recognition with a pipe ceremony.
A long table filled with state and federally elected officials, tribal members, attorneys, advocates and others sat in the front of the crowded banquet room, many giving speeches about the role they played in the bill’s passage and congratulating tribal members on their long-sought after accomplishment.
“This is a fight the next generation (of Little Shell) will not have to have,” Sen. Jon Tester, D-Mont., said via a video message. Tester was unable to come to Montana on Saturday due the impeachment proceedings against Trump going on in the Senate.
Republican Sen. Steve Daines did attend, however, catching a flight out of Washington, D.C. and arriving to the event about 7 p.m. He brought a can with the words “Little Shell” on it given to him by Gray as a reminder the issue had repeatedly been defeated in Congress.
“We finally got finished kicking the can down the road,” Daines said. He brought a copy of the defense bill that he had signed on behalf of the congressional delegation.
U.S. Rep. Greg Gianforte called it one of his “best days in serving the great state of Montana.”
“I am proud to stand here today and celebrate with you,” he said. Gianforte presented Gray with a framed copy of the bill.
Other officials at the event included Gov. Steve Bullock, Lt. Gov. Mike Cooney, Attorney General Tim Fox, Great Falls Mayor Bob Kelly and Linda Vrooman, wife of author Nicholas Vrooman, who wrote a history of the Little Shell called “The whole country was … one robe: The Little Shell Tribe’s America.”
One of the most emotional moments of the evening came from lawmaker Mitch Tropila, son of former state Sen. Joe Tropila, who introduced a bill about 20 years ago that got state recognition for the tribe.
Mitch Tropila noted that Tester, in a December column in the Great Falls Tribune, had mentioned state Sen. Joe Tropila’s successful fight to get the tribe state recognition in 2000. He said family members then took the column and visited Joe Tropila, who has severe dementia, and told him the tribe had gotten federal recognition.
He said his father said the tribe had made him an honorary lifetime member. And of the federal recognition?
Joe Tropila said “Well, it’s about time.”
“Thank you for the greatest Christmas present my father and his children could have received this Christmas,” Mitch Tropila said, as he received a standing ovation.
Bullock said the bill, which was signed Dec. 20, was “truly no greater way to end 2019 …”
He had ordered the flag be raised at the state Capitol that day.
“It’s the story of adversity, heartbreak and denied opportunity,” he said. “But it is also of tirelessness determination, courage and a long overdue correction of history.”
Fox said the tribe had made Montana better.
He told they crowd that they were the ones who should be honored, not the officials at the front of the room.
Cooney said it was a historic night.
“I am optimistic about the opportunity federal recognition brings for the Little Shell people,” he said.
Kelly congratulated tribe members and made light of how packed the room was.
“The most important I did tonight was to call the fire marshal and tell him to take the night off,” he said, bringing laughter.
“Our city could not be more proud tonight,” Kelly said, adding he looked forward to flying the Little Shell flag in the city commission chambers.
The evening included a meal and music. There were also traditional Native American songs and prayers.