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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 Portraits: John Gilbert

A photo of John Gilbert taken on March 22, 2020.
Evan Bartel
Little Shell Portraits: John Gilbert

After the Little Shell Tribe of Chippewa Indians gained federal recognition six months ago, students from the University of Montana School of Journalism talked at length with tribal members about what that means to them. In this story, student Evan Bartel introduces former chairman of the tribe, John Gilbert.

Gilbert was one of the leaders who helped guide the tribe along the path to recognition. He served as a tribal chairman and can now look back on growing up in a landless tribe and his role in the fight for recognition.

“My name is John Gilbert. I'm a Little Shell tribal member and a past chairman for the Little Shell Tribe. I was five, six years old, I used to hear my mother say, when we get federally recognized, oh, gosh, things are going to be good for us and things are gonna happen for us.

Well, like I said, I've heard that for over 60 years and to believe that's actually a reality right now is just absolutely amazing.

I grew up in Harlem. I was born in Harlem. I grew up in Harlem and Chinook in Blaine County.

There were lots of Little Shell tribal members there. We've gone through this stuff where people know that we were Native, you know, and some turn your nose up at us. Some didn't,youknow, but most of the Little Shell tribal members, you know they were workers. They worked hard, even though a lack of education was there, but by God, they all had a job.

Overall, when I had, when I filled in, I was a chairman for about eight years. But as far as getting involved in it, I happened to always go to the meetings. I always like to go sit in the meeting and watch this and that, but I was vocal. When you're vocal, people notice it when you speak up, you know. You gotta put your thoughts in, you know, so I was always doing that.

Elections were up and I got nominated. And I said, 'Well, I'll go for it'. And there were three of us, but I was the highest vote getter. So I got in and that was nearly almost 40 years ago, I believe, you know. And so I was a councilman, for the Little Shell for quite some time. Been all over the country for the Little Shell, even going to Washington D.C. 10, 12 times to listen to the bureaucratic crap over there.

They took me in this back room for a meeting and it was a storage room. And they showed me all these piles and stacks on a shelf, basically saying; That's your history right there. And there were rows and rows of a 10 foot high ceiling, hundred years of paperwork all stacked in this room about the Little Shell trying to get federal wreckage.

I was just stunned. That much paperwork and we haven't got anywhere, you know. We'd never given up. We just kept after it. We never gave up. One council would do their share, carry the burden and the next council would do their share. It just went on and on and on for generations.

Actually, it's still unbelievable to think that we've actually accomplished it and we got it done. It's exhilarating. We've got a long way to go yet but all those things that are coming up in the near future are going to be very exciting. These are going to be good decisions to be made, major decisions on behalf of Little Shell tribal members. So it's gonna be an exciting time.”

This story is part of a series about the Little Shell Tribe produced by the Native News Honors Project at the University of Montana School of Journalism. It’s funded in part by the Greater Montana Foundation.