The U.S. Senate on Tuesday passed the $738 billion national defense spending bill and with it, federal recognition of the Little Shell Tribe of Chippewa Indians.
This time last year, 99 senators voted to fast track a bill recognizing the Little Shell as a sovereign nation. A single "nay" vote tanked the effort.
"It was really painful to watch," says Gerald Gray, chairman of the Little Shell Tribe. "For example, last year the Virginia tribes got recognized and we didn't. We were in the same fight with them, if not longer."
The tribe has petitioned the government for recognition for more than a century.
"I was going to be the squeaky wheel that got the grease until this is done and over the finish line. And it's finally happened," Gray says.
On Tuesday by a vote of 86 to eight, the Senate passed the Little Shell's recognition as part of the National Defense Authorization Act. With recognition comes federal funding for health care, education and economic development, a 200-acre land base and the ability for the Little Shell to self-govern on their lands.
Gray calls the passage one of the most historic days for his tribe.
"I'm almost speechless this has finally come to fruition for us," he says. "And I would like to thank both Senator Tester and Daines and Congressman Gianforte for their steadfast fight for us on behalf of the Little Shell Tribe. We wouldn't be here without their push for us."
On a press call with reporters Tuesday, Senator Steve Daines said the tribe will soon be able to work with federal agencies to designate a land base and access other resources earmarked for sovereign tribes.
"Once ink is on the bill from President Trump, we look forward to working with Chairman Gray and the tribe here of taking the next step on the land," Daines said. "It's a very important next step. This is the big step that needs to be taken before we can get to the next step."
Senator Jon Tester noted his first act as a Senator in 2007 was introducing a bill to recognize the Little Shell.
"It might not seem like a big deal to folks who aren't impacted but the truth is this is going to allow the Little Shell to move forward in a way they've been trying to do for 150 years," Tester said.
Congressman Greg Gianforte and Governor Steve Bullock also applauded Tuesday's vote. The state legislature voted to recognize the Little Shell in 2000.
The tribe counts about 5,400 members and is headquartered in Great Falls.
The defense spending bill also authorizes a three percent pay raise for military service members, $552 million for the Ground Based Strategic Deterrent nuclear defense system and $59 million to build a weapons storage and maintenance facility at Malmstrom Air Force Base in Great Falls.
President Donald Trump is expected to sign the bill before government funding expires on Friday.