Will the Little Shell tribe finally be recognized?

The tribe's complex history has slowed federal approval of the tribe. A new rule could change that.

  • Little Shell tribal members in Lewistown, Montana, in 1940. Showing evidence of historical existence is part of the process of getting federal tribal recognition, but there is not much record of the tribe in the early 1900s.

    Courtesy James Anthony Wells Family
 

Donald Davis, a tribal councilman for Montana’s Little Shell Tribe of Chippewa Indians, often introduces himself with a joke. “My Dad is half Little Shell, and my mother is a full-blood Norwegian,” he’ll say, smiling. “So, I’m a Norwindian.” 

But he grows serious when he describes how his dark-skinned father had to hide his own heritage. “One time, when he took me to football practice,” Davis recalls, “I got out of the car, and one of my teammates asked, ‘Who’s the f---ing Indian?’ ”

That night, Davis asked his mother whether he was, in fact, Indian. Her answer still haunts him: “Yeah,” she said. “But we don’t talk about it, because they don’t like that around here.”

Many American Indians can relate to Davis’ story of identity suppression, but it’s especially poignant to members of the landless Little Shell Band. They have never been acknowledged under the federal tribal recognition rule, which outlines the criteria tribes must meet in order to establish a formal government-to-government relationship with the United States. The state of Montana recognized the tribe in 2000, but the U.S. Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA) remains undecided –– 36 years after the Little Shell Band first submitted its petition for recognition.

For the Little Shell and other unrecognized tribes, however, there may be hope on the horizon. In April, President Barack Obama fulfilled a promise to Indian Country when the BIA announced revisions to the acknowledgement process. On Aug. 1, some of these revisions became law.

The new rule is one of several decisions by the Obama administration that have prioritized tribal sovereignty, says Maylinn Smith, director of the Margery Hunter Brown Indian Law Clinic at the University of Montana. “That’s where Obama really gets it: taking actions that allow tribes to exercise sovereignty.”

 

Tens of thousands of American Indians have waited decades for recognition, their lives left in limbo by the notoriously slow federal acknowledgement process. Since the process was established in 1978, 87 tribes have petitioned for recognition. Yet only 51 have received a determination, and about two-thirds of those were denied.

Recognition can have life-changing consequences: Members of the 567 federally acknowledged tribes gain access to benefits such as housing and health services. They also are considered citizens of sovereign nations, with the power to form their own governments and create laws within their jurisdictions.

Nicholas Vrooman, a white scholar who’s worked as tribal historian for the Little Shell since 2010, says “the new rule is more inclusive, allowing for the complexity of the Little Shell history to come forward.” Formerly, unrecognized tribes were required to prove continuous existence as a distinct community since 1900, with third parties providing the supporting evidence.

These requirements were difficult for the Little Shell to meet. First, the tribe is composed of people of mixed indigenous and European descent. In Canada, such people are constitutionally recognized as Métis, but the United States offers no comparable legal status.

Second, hundreds of Little Shell people were forcibly evicted from Montana under the Cree Deportation Act of 1896. This law, which followed a disputed treaty in 1863 and a fraudulent agreement in 1892, scattered the Little Shell across the West and into Alberta, Canada, producing unavoidable “gaps in their history,” according to Vrooman.

Finally, the only people interested in verifying their complicated history were the Little Shell themselves, leaving the tribe with few options for third-party advocates.

The new rule changes all that. It accepts historical gaps in tribal histories in certain circumstances and allows tribes to present evidence of their own history. “Indian people were justifiably going ‘underground’ and hiding” in the early 1900s, says Assistant Secretary of Indian Affairs, Kevin K. Washburn, “and it is unfair to force them to show external evidence (of their existence) from that time.”

The new recognition rule is the latest in a string of decisions from the Obama administration affecting indigenous nations. Since 2009, the Department of Interior has moved aggressively to settle legal claims by more than 40 tribes seeking redress for historic mismanagement of federal trust funds, including the $3.4 billion Cobell case. The administration also led the charge to permanently reauthorize the Indian Health Care Improvement Act, which provides health care to 1.9 million American Indians and Alaskan Natives. The common thread, says Washburn, is “justice for indigenous people.”

The phrase resonates with Davis and other Little Shell tribal citizens, who are hoping that this administrative trend means their request for recognition will soon be granted. That would help right the wrongs that have burdened them for far too long. “Just to know that finally, after all these years, that we’re really here, that we’re respectable,” Davis says. “I’ve been waiting for that forever.”

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