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Little Shell Tribe celebrates federal recognition in Helena

The Little Shell Tribe has about 5,400 enrolled members
Posted at 8:51 AM, Dec 22, 2019
and last updated 2020-01-27 12:50:42-05

President Donald Trump is set to sign a major defense funding bill on Friday evening that will include a provision to grant federal recognition to Montana's Little Shell Tribe. In anticipation of that milestone, Governor Steve Bullock and several tribal leaders held a celebration on Friday afternoon at the Capitol, with dozens of people attending.

Bullock signed a proclamation marking the day the Little Shell received federal recognition. Leaders then raised the tribal flag outside the Capitol. It will fly there through Saturday.

The Little Shell Tribe and Montana's Congressional delegation have been trying to get recognition through Congress for years. Tribal leaders say it will give them access to important support for things like education and health care, and that this is the start of a new chapter in the tribe's history.

Clancy Sivertsen, Little Shell Tribe Vice-Chair, said, ”This is just fantastic news, what a great Christmas present, but now that it's signed, the work begins for us, to get everything set up and work for the members to make sure that our government is set up and our judicial and all the programs are put together. It's going to be a lot of work, but it's worth it.”

U.S. Senator Jon Tester (D-MT) said, “It's a big deal for a lot of reasons, the fact that future generations won't have to have this fight anymore, the fact that it takes the Little Shell Tribe into the twenty-first century, the fact that they're treated fairly, as all other tribes in the state are, too.”

U.S. Senator Steve Daines (R-MT) said, "Today will forever be remembered by the Little Shell Tribe and all of Montana. After more than a century of perseverance, the Little Shell Tribe is finally federally recognized. Congratulations to Chairman Gray who has fought this fight with grace and patience. It’s been an honor to work with him over the years to get this done. I thank President Trump for signing this into law, and I look forward to celebrating with the Tribe in Montana."

The Little Shell Tribe has about 5,400 enrolled members, many of them in the Great Falls area.

In addition to allowing the Little Shell access to federal funding and services through agencies like the Bureau of Indian Affairs and the Indian Health Service, the legislation also states the U.S. Department of Interior shall acquire 200 acres to serve as a land base for the tribe.

The Little Shell Tribe, headquartered in Great Falls, includes more than 5,000 enrolled members around the state. The tribe has a long history, dating back to followers of Chief Little Shell, who were left without recognition or a land base after disputes over a federal treaty in 1892.

Once the bill becomes law, Daines and Tester said they want the Bureau of Indian Affairs and other federal agencies to quickly begin working with the Little Shell to ensure they are treated as any other tribe. “The BIA is very, very aware of this, and we will be expecting the Bureau and Indian Health Service both to be able to step up and get this implemented in a timely manner,” said Tester. “If not, they will have some pretty serious oversight.”

Daines said, after last year’s effort fell short, that Gray gave him a metal can to symbolize Congress “kicking the can down the road” on the Little Shell. He said he promised to bring the can back to Montana and shoot holes into it once the tribe finally achieved recognition. “I’m looking forward to taking that can back to Montana, and we’ll have a celebratory moment when we destroy that tin can with the recognition that you so richly deserve,” he said.

Little Shell tribal chairman Gerald Gray said they are looking forward to finally being able to celebrate full federal recognition. “This is literally one of the most historical days for the Little Shell Tribe,” he said. “It’s truly amazing, I’m almost speechless that this is finally come to fruition for us.”

Gray said in a Facebook post on Friday:

  • Today the Little Shell Tribe will become the 574th federally recognized tribe in the United States. There is much work for Tribal Council to do and I ask for patience as we build our Tribe's infrastructure. As they say, Rome was not built in a day, and it will take time for resources to come on board and decisions to be made. Tribal Council will be meeting over the next few weeks to determine the Tribe's initial priorities. We will also meet with our federal partners to determine how they can be of assistance. I am beyond overjoyed that we are finally at this place that so many of our ancestors, family members, and friends have fought to achieve. We have restored the dignity and respect that the Little Shell Tribe deserves. Have a blessed holiday season, enjoy time with your families, and look for updates from Tribal Council in the New Year.

The website of the Little Shell Tribe states: "The current population of enrolled tribal members in Montana is approximately 5,400+. The tribe maintains an office in Great Falls, Montana and continues to fight for federal recognition. The Métis number in the thousands in the United States and south central Canada, and there are many unenrolled Little Shell people in Montana. Exact population numbers are not available."