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Tribal Affairs
Roughly six months ago, the federal government officially recognized the Little Shell Tribe of Chippewa Indians as a sovereign nation. It was national news then. But what does it mean now for the members and descendants of Little Shell?Nine students from the University of Montana School of Journalism spent a semester reporting on the impact of recognition on what has long been considered Montana’s “landless tribe.” The resulting student-produced series, "Project Little Shell," comprises the Native News Honors Project. It’s funded in part by the Greater Montana Foundation.

Little Shell Nationhood Passes Six Month Mark

A photo of the outskirtks of Little Shell of Chippewa Indian Reservation.
University of Montana School of Journalism

Roughly six months ago, the federal government officially recognized the Little Shell Tribe of Chippewa Indians as a sovereign nation. It was national news then. But what does it mean now for the members and descendents of Little Shell? Nine students from the University of Montana School of Journalism spent a semester reporting on the impact of recognition on what has long been considered Montana’s “landless tribe.” This story is part of the student produced series, Project Little Shell.

Last year, the federal government recognized a new tribe in Montana; the Little Shell Tribe of Chippewa.  As the tribe determines what federal aid will mean for its members, many people are learning its history for the first time.

The Little Shell tribe's membership comes from the Chippewa and Metis cultures. The two groups have been linked since the 1600’s. Metis people are descended from French trappers and Chippewa Cree women who married during the Canadian fur trade. Their children faced rejection from all sides as tribal elder Al Wiseman describe during an interview at his home in Choteau. 

"Out of this intermarriage, the ones that suffered was the children. They suffered. The full blooded Indian, he didn't like these little kids because they were mixed blood. The Frenchman, the true Frenchman, he didn't care much for these little mixed blood kids because they weren't true French. So where did that leave a little boy or little girl? It left you in between."

The Metis spread out across much of North America, including clusters around the Great Lakes. They traveled and intermarried with other tribes and with those tribes, they faced the pressure of American expansion. As Metis and Chippewa groups were forced West they met groups of related people already living on the plains, indicating that Chippewa presence in Montana predates statehood," Wiseman said.

One Little Shell descendant who has spent years tracking tribal movements is Duaine Reid, an archaeologist and the tribe's historic preservation officer. He describes how outside pressures forced the Little Shell to stop moving.

“You got to think of a group of people that was connected across a vast area that we're living in, trading, marrying and dynamic, you know. This is kind of how I can explain it, like it's that game that we’d play when we're younger, musical chairs, you know? So this culture, this world that's moving, the people that are marrying, visiting and living their lives and then all of a sudden there's this outside force that says, 'Everyone now stop,'" Reid said.

The 1885 Riel Rebellion and Metis uprising in Saskatchewan forced many Native peoples to flee south. Shortly afterwards, the U.S. negotiated what it hoped would be its last treaty with the Chippewa; The McCumber Agreement of 1892.

The agreement created North Dakota's Turtle Mountain Reservation. Government negotiators wanted to keep it as small as possible, so tribal membership roles were cut down. This, coupled with the low price the government offered for the land, alienated a lot of chiefs including Chief Little Shell The Third, who broke off negotiations in protest of the terms of the treaty.

The treaty was ratified regardless and many unrecognized Indians were left with no chance for federal aid. Over time, these people spread out, surviving as agricultural and urban laborers. Poverty was almost universal and education was scarce. Many people look down them. "On that there'll be stories where people called us this 'garbage can Indians' because supposedly we live next to the garbage yards and slaughterhouses. But my grandma, she said, ‘No, it wasn't like that. We were already there. So it's more like they're throwing their garbage on us," Reid said.

Cultural identity remained strong among the Little Shell.

They gather in family groups and enjoyed traditional fiddle music. They also still hoped to see recognition. As the years went by the tribe and its advocates began to petition the government. One of the leaders of the push in recent years was John Gilbert. He's a former chairman and spoke at his home in Winston about the experience.

“They took me in this back room for a little meeting and it was a storage room. They showed me all these piles and stacks on shelf. That's your history right there and it was rows and rows of a 10 foot high stack, 100 years of paperwork all stacked in this room about a Little Shell trying to get federal recognition. I was stunned. That much paperwork and we haven't gottent anywhere, you know," Gilbert said.

The tribe tried for recognition through legislative means, court arguments and one on one work trying to sway legislators. Changes in leadership at the Department of the Interior or the Bureau of Indian Affairs,  stalled some of that work.

Montana state Government recognized the tribe in 2000 and a state supreme court decision affirmed the tribe's case.

Recognition could mean education and health care benefits. It doesn't guarentee land but can allow for the council to put land in trust under the Little Shell name.

For now the tribe waits to see what form the aid will take. 

This story is part of the Native News Honors Project at the University of Montana School of Journalism. It’s funded in part by the Greater Montana Foundation.