Native News 2018 / University of Montana School of Journalism: Being Little Shell

Little Shell Chippewa Tribe sees major progress on federal recognition bill

With time running out in the 115th Congress, a bill to extend federal recognition to the Little Shell Tribe of Chippewa Indians is taking a major step forward this week.

The Montana-based tribe has been in limbo for more than a century following failed treaty negotiations in the late 1800s. An attempt to gain recognition through the Bureau of Indian Affairs also has been marked by uncertainty.

So now it looks like legislative recognition represents the tribe's best shot. H.R.3764, the Little Shell Tribe of Chippewa Indians Restoration Act, is expected to pass the House on Wednesday, according to the Majority Leader's schedule.

"The Little Shell people have suffered a long time at the hands of the bureaucracy in Washington and it's time for Congress to restore the tribe's federal recognition," Rep. Greg Gianforte (R-Montana) said at a markup session in July when the House Committee on Natural Resources advanced his bill, which was the second he introduced after arriving in Capitol Hill.

Efforts to recognize the tribe through Congress go back a decade. Supporters have included Secretary Ryan Zinke, the current leader of the Department of the Interior, who made securing justice for the Little Shell one of his first priorities when he served in the House.

Then-Congressman Ryan Zinke (R-Montana) is seen with the flag of the Little Shell Tribe of Chippewa Indians. Zinke now serves as the Secretary of the Interior. Photo: Office of Ryan Zinke

But progress has been slow-moving. The markup session in July represented the first time a stand-alone Little Shell recognition bill made it past the committee level in Congress. So passage this week would mark a huge milestone for the tribe, which numbers about 4,500, mostly in and around Great Falls, Montana's third most populous city.

The House is due to approve H.R.3764 under a suspension of the rules, meaning it is considered non-controversial. Republicans and Democrats alike have described the bill in that manner.

It wasn't always that way. For years, Republicans stood in the way of recognition bills, with most calling on tribes to go through the BIA's process, which typically takes years, if not decades, to complete.

The GOP's stance has shifted in recent years and now Republicans are the primary sponsors of such measures. And they are seeing success -- in January, Congress passed H.R.984, the Thomasina E. Jordan Indian Tribes of Virginia Federal Recognition Act, to extend recognition to six tribes in Virginia. A Republican president -- that would be Donald Trump, of course -- signed the bill into law.

Since then, the Republican-controlled House Committee on Natural Resources has advanced the Little Shell bill as well as H.R.3535, the Ruffey Rancheria Restoration Act, a bill to restore recognition to the Ruffey Rancheria, whose federal status was terminated in the 1960s. That measure awaits action on the House floor.

The last stand-alone tribal recognition bills became law in the mid-1990s, during the Bill Clinton presidency. He also signed an "omnibus" Indian bill in 2000, at the end of his final term in office, that included recognition and restoration provisions for two tribes.

The Senate version of the Little Shell recognition bill is S.39. It was one of the first measures advanced by the Senate Committee on Indian Affairs back in February 2017 but it has not seen further action in the chamber.

The 115th session of Congress is due to end in December.

Native News 2018
Being Little Shell: Finding Tribal Identity While Miles Apart (University of Montana School of Journalism)

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