The Little Shell Tribe of Chippewa Indians is poised to get federal recognition any day now. Once the must-pass defense bill clears Congress, the Montana tribe will receive a land base and be eligible for federal funds after a generations-long struggle.
Little Shell Chairman Gerald Gray says he prays every morning. He smudges and asks his ancestors for federal recognition. Tuesday morning was a little different. He was, “Thanking them for helping us get through this and seeing the day we never thought would come has finally arrived.”
Federal recognition for the tribe is embedded within the National Defense Authorization Act , an annual bill that’s cleared Congress for nearly six decades. It would grant the tribe a 200-acre land base and make it eligible for federal dollars from agencies like the Bureaus of Indian Affairs and Indian Education.
The Tribe, which is headquartered in Great Falls and is about fifty-five hundred members strong, has been recognized by the state for almost two decades but never by the federal government. It’s something the tribe has been pushing for since treaty talks over a hundred years ago.
Now recognition seems imminent.
Chairman Gray, who has no health insurance, says he looks forward to coverage by the Indian Health Service but that this is about more than the federal benefits.
“The dignity was always kind of been in question,” he said. “You know, ‘Are you really an Indian?’ Well yeah, we always knew we were but other tribes and Indians looked at us like, ‘Well, you’re not federally recognized.’”
Acknowledgement has seemed in reach before.
Montana's Congressional delegation has been trying to pass Little Shell recognition bills for over a decade, although stand-alone bills proved tough to move.
Last year, a bill to recognize the tribe cleared the House but died in the Senate by one vote.
That’s why, even though this bill is considered a must-pass piece of legislation, Chairman Gray says he kept pulling up the defense bill last night.
“Just to see what page we were on, page 1802,” he said, laughing. “Just to look back and make sure it’s there. Of course you’re always like, wow.”
A Little Shell recognition bill was the first piece of legislation Democratic Senator Jon Tester ever introduced in the U.S. Senate. Now, seeing it so close to the finishing line he said, “The light is at the end of the tunnel.”
“We can see the smoke coming out of the train,” he said. “It’s coming.”
He’s introduced it every Congress since and says the bill’s current language is nearly verbatim of what he put forth in 2007.
Republican Senator Steve Daines has been a consistent supporter and co-sponsor of the bill, first in the House and then the Senate.
“We got really close last December, down to the one yard line,” he said. “Didn’t quite get it in the end zone. Now we’re going to stick it in the end zone.”
Assuming the bill passes, the Little Shell will become one of twenty four tribes that have been recognized through Congress since 1960. That’s according to a previous press release from Republican Congressman Greg Gianforte, who helped get a stand-alone version of the bill through the House for each of the past two years. Earlier this year, he urged his peers to keep Little Shell recognition in the national defense act as the House and Senate reconciled the differences between their bills.
The conferencing process took months and just wrapped this week.
Now the House is expected to vote on the bill Wednesday. Then the Senate will do the same early next week.
Chairman Gray says he’s already planning a party but knows it’s D.C., where anything can happen. He says he’ll wait for the ink to dry first.
Olivia Reingold is Yellowstone Public Radio’s Report for America corps member.